Greenville’s autism program a blueprint for success

By Mike Taylor • Last Updated 1:33 pm on Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Jay Lockwood, far right, raises his hand to answer a question posed by Lincoln Heights Elementary School para-professional Casey Mumby. Jay is one of 45 students currently enrolled in the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District’s autism program. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

See Jay. See Jay run. Jay likes to run, especially during games of tag during recess. But don’t tag Jay. Jay does not like to be touched.

For Jay Lockwood, even a simple game of tag has its problems. Aversion to physical contact is just one of Jay’s many “quirks,” the odd mannerisms that in an earlier age would likely have branded the charming second-grader an outcast.

Not anymore. A student of Lincoln Heights Elementary’s Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) program, Jay is an integral part of the school’s daily routine. He is for the most part mainstreamed into regular ed classrooms with students he thinks of as friends.

Jay is one of 45 students currently enrolled in the Greenville Public School’s ASD program and — according to Director of Student Services Linda VanHouten — his success at Lincoln Heights is not uncommon.

But to understand how the program works, one must first know a bit about autism. Though ongoing studies continue to shed new light on autism, the condition’s causes, and even its symptoms, remain open to interpretation and debate.

Jay Lockwood, a student in the MAISD autism program, spends most of his day in mainstreamed classes at Lincoln Heights Elementary School. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

It doesn’t help that the characteristics of autism vary widely from case to case, but the following — gleaned from the MAISD’s ASD handbook — gives a general sense of the condition:

• They have one sided social nuances and do not understand the perspectives of others.

• They do not understand what constitutes socially acceptable behavior.

• They have little or no control over their interests and cannot handle free time well.

• They are frequently awkward and clumsy.

• They have sensory impairments and require either more, or sometimes less, sensory stimulation.

• They appear insensitive and cannot “step into the shoes” of others.

• They store information in a “heap,” making later retrieval slow and difficult, which can cause anxiety.

• They lack planning and organizational skills, have trouble following directions, are forgetful, and can’t keep track of details.

• They sometimes lack the words to explain their needs or feelings.

With so many factors working against them, it might seem kids with ASD would have a tough time assimilating into the general education population. That’s not the case for Jay and many of his fellow ASD classmates, however, thanks in large part to the MAISD’s innovative programs.

The key, VanHouten says, is giving the entire student body a sense of ownership with regard to the success of kids like Jay.

“We try to find ways to teach kids to communicate effectively with their peers,” VanHouten explained. “Some of these kids you might not even recognize as being autistic, but they have difficulty socializing in certain settings. We try to teach the kids that they’re just not always on the same wavelength.”

Depending on the severity of the condition, some ASD students begin in self-contained special ed classrooms and are later moved out into the general ed population incrementally, to see how they cope.

Teachers and administrators watch carefully to ensure the student is feeling comfortable and safe. Everything possible is done to provide predictable, consistent daily experiences, a must for most ASD students.

“We slowly increase their time in the general ed setting,” VanHouten said. “A para-professional is with the student all the time at first, then just part-time and eventually, they just observe. Each student’s plan is mapped out individually.”

That individual treatment is one of the things that make teaching ASD students so time and personnel intensive; there is no boiler plate method for achieving academic and social success. Much of the program relies on the expertise and sensitivity of the teachers and para-pros and their ability to think “on the fly” and recognize teaching opportunities as they occur.

For Jay and students like him, however, the rewards of seeing genuine forward momentum are more than worth the effort.

Jay is considered a “high functioning” ASD student; his academic achievements are about average for his age group and he is able to communicate effectively, most of the time, with fellow students and staff.

In Jay’s case, the trick is engaging him in the task at hand and keeping him focused and as anxiety-free as possible. This requires a great deal of daily forethought and planning. The least disruption in Jay’s routine — such as being touched during a game of tag — can throw his entire day into a tailspin.

Next to recess, working on the classroom computer is the favorite time of day for MAISD autism student Jay Lockwood.

Lincoln Heights social worker Lori Oxford is one of many staffers responsible for mapping out Jay’s routine in a way that allows him to be productive on a regular basis.

“He can’t handle changes in schedule or changes in routine,” Oxford said. “That’s what’s so important about pre-loading. We make sure the student knows what’s going to happen in advance. They really rely on predictability. Any changes or surprises can really throw these kids off. Jay sometimes struggles with issues of change.”

The integration with mainstream education students also is a key factor in achieving the desired outcome, which is to say, allowing the adult Jay to one day function as an independent member of society in the world at large.

“That’s our goal,” said Lincoln Heights Principal Michelle Blaszcynski. “These kids benefit from the interactivity, as do the other students. One day they’re going to meet someone like (Jay) in society and when they do, they’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew somebody like that in school’ and they’ll know how to deal with the situation.

“They learn to develop that compassion, that sensitivity. It helps kids realize we should be accommodating everyone, regardless of their learning style or preferential activities.”

As to the “regular ed” students, most can’t get enough of interacting with Jay and his fellow ASD classmates. According to Blaszcynski, virtually every student who can signs up to be part of an ASD “buddy group,” in which they have a chance to work with special needs students and discover new ways to pull them along, both socially and academically.

“They sometimes do role playing activities that help,” Blaszcynski said. “The kids love it. It helps all the students learn how to think and work to their own strengths.”

Not every ASD student is as easily mainstreamed as Jay, however. Some function on a much lower level and are far more academically or socially challenged. Many may never be able to experience the benefits of mainstreaming.

The needs of these students are not forgotten. Special classrooms set up specifically for their needs are part of the ISD’s overall autism program.

This all costs money, of course, sometimes a lot of money, at least when compared to the cost of educating the “average” student. Where this funding comes from will be the topic of an upcoming segment of this report.

Watching Jay successfully interact with his classmates, it’s hard to not be impressed with the massive undertaking — the planning, the evaluation, the inter-departmental cooperation — going on behind the scenes. It seems like, and is, a lot of work. But the results are undeniable.

Jay runs. Jay laughs. Jay plays tag (but don’t touch him). Jay likes his Xbox 360, this year’s Christmas present.

“If I do good at school, I can have time on it at night,” Jay said. “If I don’t, no Xbox.”

Jay, for all his quirks, is just another Lincoln Heights Elementary kid. A little different, sure, but as his fellow students will tell you, we’re all different, in our own way. And that’s just fine.

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