By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Nate (right) gets help in dealing with autism from his friend Ryan at Pacific Rim Elementary School in Carlsbad.
Nate doesn’t like loud noises, Mondays or summer school. The fifth-grader often comments “I don’t like Mondays” in the middle of discussing other subjects. When asked what he does like, he enthusiastically describes the bubble gum-scented deodorizer that’s used inside porta-potties.
“Smells like bubble gum,” he says repeatedly.
Nate, 12, has intelligence, good looks and good grades. He also has autism. He and other students on the autism spectrum have been mainstreamed since kindergarten at Pacific Rim Elementary School — and various other school sites in Carlsbad.
It’s a challenge for teachers, but mainstreaming seems to work because Carlsbad Unified Teachers Association members are determined to make it work.
High-functioning students with autism attend regular classrooms throughout most of the day, and also receive services with special education teachers and speech-language pathologists. Many begin with one-on-one sessions with classroom aides, but progress to the point where they can manage on their own. The goal is to make them as independent as possible.
The school has a “sensory break area,” where students with autism can take a time out if needed and calm themselves. Seven-year-old Will jumped 50 times on a small trampoline and did wall pushups and some ball bounces. He then donned a backpack with weights for a few minutes before removing it and heading back to class.
Will performs fine academically, but struggles with communication skills. In a session with speech pathologist Amy Gold, the two play a board game and work at casual conversation. It looks fun, but the purpose is to reinforce the concept of taking turns.
“Turn-taking with a game is concrete, and from this he learns about conversational turn-taking,” explains Gold. “If someone asks ‘How are you?’ he may not answer. He struggles with conversing on the playground with peers, but he’s young, only in first grade.”
Alicia Granberg, who helps coordinate mainstreaming, says each child has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“It also has a lot to do with the general education teachers and how they accept students with disabilities and make accommodations,” says Granberg, a special education teacher. “It can be difficult for the general education teachers that don’t have a special education background, but we are lucky that our district and SELPA [Special Education Local Plan Area] offer trainings and seminars to help everybody understand the needs of all students better.”
The SELPA is a local service area that coordinates with school districts and county offices of education to provide a continuum of programs and services for disabled individuals from birth through 22 years of age, and is also available as a resource to the community on issues related to special education.
It can be distracting for general education students to be in a classroom with students who have autism, because they can have meltdowns, behave inappropriately or blurt out whatever they are thinking, admits Granberg. “When something happens, we work on those things immediately,” she says. “We role-play in social groups or lunch groups.”
Third-grade teacher Peggy McGowan has had many students with autism in her classroom over the years, and currently has a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. It’s a challenge, she says, but well worth the effort.
“I think it benefits everybody, and my students learn compassion,” she says. “Students become the nurturers, and it’s amazing to watch them. Yes, you might have students flapping their hands, jumping up and down, or disruptions, but the kids help each other. They know how to distract someone and can help put fires out quickly. It’s very natural and it’s not forced. Our kids here are very accepting. We have very little bullying here.”
Nate, who has attended Pacific Rim since kindergarten, relies on his classmate Ryan to give him “reminders” and help him stay calm. They have been friends since third grade.
“I always sit next to him,” says Ryan. “I think Nate is nice and really funny. He’s been an inspiration to me.”
Ryan Bentley, a second-year teacher at nearby Poinsettia Elementary School, has had autism “clusters” in his first-grade classroom both years. During a classroom visit, it’s difficult to tell which children have autism and which do not. He considers all his students “mainstream” and calls those without autism “typical peers” who may also exhibit behavior that can present problems at times.
“I don’t have different standards for students with autism, but I do have different expectations for them,” he says. “Students are expected to raise their hand when they have a question, but kids with autism have a tendency to blurt out whatever they’re thinking. They might be processing what they are learning, and I completely ignore it. If I don’t pay attention to it we can move past it.”
Bentley has not received special training, but he has developed a knack for working with this challenging population. Much of it can be attributed to collaborating with special education teachers and parents and listening to their advice. And some of it is just instinctual.
“When I give students a new assignment, the typical peers may get it and students with autism my not understand what is being asked. Some will shut down, and some will get verbal, and some will get physically agitated. So any time I see that happen, I get close to the student and down to their level and speak in a calm voice to reassure that student. You have to calm them before they can move forward with anything.”
At first he was apprehensive, but he now loves working with students who have autism.
“Having them in the classroom has helped me improve my overall teaching,” he says. “The strategies I have learned to help autistic students succeed in the classroom have been beneficial for helping all my kids succeed.”
Bentley’s district has recently offered professional development on how to teach children with autism, but there were not enough spots available to all staff members for this training. He hopes to take district-offered training in the future, and meanwhile has been researching autism himself.
“I think teachers working with kids who have autism can definitely benefit from getting training on how to work with these students,” he says. “There are strategies you can use with autistic students that can really make a difference, and not all teachers know what these strategies are.”
Learn more about California SELPAs at