• Educating The Autistic Child

    What’s A School Day Like When Every Student Has Autism?

    By New York Family

    On a brisk
    Monday morning in a classroom in
    Chelsea, ten children are gathered in a
    semi-circle singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” They smile widely at their
    teacher, Donna
    A.,
    who is sitting in a chair in front of them, and softly giggle when one student
    enthusiastically jumps out of his seat at the lyrics “like a diamond in the
    sky.” Around them, brightly colored posters adorn the walls and off to the
    side, there are labeled cubbyholes, each housing one child’s belongings. —

    As the children,
    who are between four and five years old, continue singing, one boy with a mop
    of curly brown hair is distracted by his reflection in the mirror to his right.
    He jumps toward it and makes faces, laughing hysterically at what he sees.

    “Come back to
    the circle. Sit in your seat nicely,” Donna and a teaching assistant remind
    him.

    Some of the
    other children stand up and sit back down during the singing session. One
    stares intently at the bright orange paper band around his wrist, which all of
    the students are wearing.

    “Who’s ready to
    sing a solo?” Donna asks the class. One by one, eager students head to the
    front of the circle to perform a song of their choice.

    At first glance,
    this may seem like any kindergarten classroom in a
    New York City school, but these children attend the
    Association for Metroarea Autistic Children, Inc. (
    AMAC)—a National Association for the
    Education of Young Children accredited school.

    Aside from their
    love of silly songs and even sillier dances, the diagnosis of autism bonds
    these young children together. Categorized as a developmental disorder, autism
    can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
    According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects one
    in every 110 children in the
    United States. Ranging from very mild to severe,
    children with autism may suffer from delayed speech and language skills, repeat
    words and phrases over and over, get upset by minor

    changes or adjustments to a
    routine, and have obsessive interests, among other behaviors. Although many
    schools accept autistic children into their special education programs, they
    are often not equipped to give these students the individualized attention they
    need.

    That is where AMAC comes in. Founded in 1962, AMAC is a year-round school for students ages
    two and a half to 21 years old who suffer from all levels of the autism
    spectrum. About 200 students attend the school, where classes remain very small
    and children are placed based on their individual needs. Class size ranges from
    six to ten students, all with a teacher and at least one teaching assistant.
    Children with severe autism are placed in the smaller groups with greater
    supervision.

    “The small class
    size really allows teachers to work with the students and give them the proper
    amount of attention,” Miriam DiOrio, Director of Clinical Services at
    AMAC says. “In [certain] classes, they are
    often able to work one-on-one with the children.”

    Autism2904.jpg

    AMAC teaches students not only academic
    subjects, but also social and communication skills. This is done through the
    Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) approach, a scientifically based, state
    approved methodology. It relies on intensive behavioral intervention and
    teaches targeted skills and behaviors.
    AMAC faculty and staff, which consist of
    teachers with special education certification, trained teaching assistants and
    behavioral analysts, all reinforce behaviors through a reward system—hence, the
    orange bracelets.

    When walking
    through the busy hallways of the school where students file in and out of
    classrooms and teachers sing songs about moving on to a new activity, one will find
    that students have their own plastic boxes filled with snacks. Each container
    is individually assembled according to the child’s personal preferences—some
    filled with pretzels, cookies or small candies like M&Ms.

    “When students
    complete a certain task, they are then rewarded with a small piece of food,
    which reinforces that it is a good behavior they should continue doing,” DiOrio
    says.

    Depending on the
    severity of the child’s condition, the rewarded task may include verbalizing a
    desire or following a routine or it may be part of a learning activity.

    For example,
    during one of the day’s activities for the school-aged children (ages five-13),
    students and teachers sit across from each other, one-on-one, and practice word
    recognition. In front of the children are bowls filled with their favorite
    snacks.

    “Show me cat,” a
    teacher assistant says to the student sitting across from him. He holds up
    three pieces of paper with different words on them. When the child points to
    the word “cat,” the teacher gives him one M&M.

    “Good job!” the
    assistant says, as the boy happily accepts his treat.

    Twice a day,
    children in each classroom can purchase snacks, candy and small toys from a
    reward cart. They are given currency—younger children receive wristbands and
    the older students get plastic fake dollar bills—periodically throughout the
    day for good behavior.

    When the reward
    cart visits, children line up and their currency is counted. Students can
    choose to purchase various items with what they have or wait until they collect
    more currency for something that is more expensive.

    “If there’s a
    toy or item a student really wants, he has the option to save for it over a
    period of time,” DiOrio says. “So students are also learning a real life lesson
    – the value of saving.”

    Teachers at AMAC often face challenges that those in
    other schools do not. For example, children with autism often have a difficult
    time coping with changes to routine.

    Jessica F.,
    who has taught at
    AMAC for the past four years, said one of her
    new students has had a particularly hard time with transitioning to different
    tasks throughout the day.

    “He will often
    throw tantrums when it’s time to leave one task and go to another,” she says.

    The solution?
    Finn made a picture book for the student chronicling the different activities
    of his day. She took photos of him partaking in reading lessons, doing
    arithmetic, taking art classes and playing games on a computer and attached
    them to the pages of the book. Each time he completes an activity, he tears the
    picture out of the book and knows it is time to move to the next task.

    “This helps him
    transition,” Finn says. “He knows he has to get through things…like math, to
    get to something he likes, like computers.”

    Upstairs at AMAC’s high school, a New
    York
    State registered school that is able to grant local, IEP (Individualized Education Program) and
    Regents Diplomas,
    things are
    run in a similar manner.

    Students are
    rewarded for good behavior, and class sizes are determined by the teenagers’
    abilities. Like any other high school, students at
    AMAC are taught mathematics, English, science
    and social studies.

    In one of the
    classrooms, students are learning economics and the concept of a monopoly.

    “So, basically,
    it’s when one business tries to wipe out all other corporations?” a student
    asks his teacher. “They’re trying to wipe out their competition.”

    “Exactly!” the
    teacher exclaims. “You got it.”

    Just then
    there’s a knock on the door. The reward cart is making its afternoon visit.

    Students begin
    lining up at the cart.

    “How much for
    the Welch’s Fruit Snacks?” one student asks.

    “Four dollars,”
    comes the response.

    The student buys
    the fruit snacks, but mutters to himself on the way back to his seat. “Four dollars
    for Welch’s Fruit Snacks—that’s pretty steep!”

    For parents,
    being involved in their child’s education is a very important aspect of the
    AMAC experience. A communication notebook, in
    which teachers update parents on their child’s progress, is sent home with
    students every day. Parents also have the option to write notes to their
    child’s teacher about any concerns they may have.

    Vernalize
    Cameron, whose son Mirembe, 4, has attended
    AMAC for the past two years, says that this
    constant communication has been an integral part of her child’s education.

    “Knowing what is
    going on at school is great because it allows me to bring the lessons home,”
    she says.

    Cameron, who
    praises
    AMAC’s system of rewards, says she continues
    to reward Mirembe after the school day is over because the approach really
    works.

    “Before he came
    here, he would constantly throw tantrums,” she remembers. “He wouldn’t want to
    go outside. If he wanted something, he didn’t know how to express himself. Now,
    things are so much more peaceful and he doesn’t get agitated as much.”

    Yet, Cameron and
    school officials emphasize that
    AMAC
    offers much more than a strict regimen of behavior analysis and rewards.

    “We also provide
    a loving and nurturing environment that is warm and inviting,” says Arnold R.
    Cohen, M.D., the Medical Director and one of the founders of
    AMAC.

    Cohen notes that
    in addition to regular school activities,
    AMAC holds a number of specialized events
    that students, parents and faculty alike greatly enjoy, including fundraisers,
    concerts and holiday celebrations—most notably a Thanksgiving meal that
    includes homemade dishes from parents and even celebrity chefs.

    “It’s quite the
    feast,” Cohen says with a smile.

    Perhaps it is
    this mix of a proven scientific method and the warm nature of the school that
    accounts for
    AMAC’s success. Last year, high school
    student Naresh Cintron graduated and went on to attend
    Lehman College. Also, the entire preschool class
    graduated into less restrictive schools, a goal officials at
    AMAC are very proud of and hope to achieve
    again this year.

    Cameron says she
    believes her son’s experience at
    AMAC has prepared him to move to a mainstream
    school after this year.

    “He’s come a
    long way,” she says, “and with everything he’s learned here, I am much more
    comfortable with the idea of him attending a regular school.”

    For more information, visit amac.org.

    Photograph by Andrew Schwartz

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