Sunday, October 26, 2008

Becoming an Autism Educator

Originally published in the New York Times Lesson Plans blog (plus an excerpt in the Sunday NY Times!).

For the first time in my six-year teaching career, I am not completely freaked out by going back to school. I have, however, more than paid my dues to reach this stage of teacher emotional stability. In my first year of teaching, I freaked out not only in September, but pretty much every day (and well into every night) of the school year. At the time, I taught teenagers with learning disabilities in the South Bronx, including many emotionally disturbed students. I somehow managed to stick it out, and the next year, I met a Bronx teenager who would change my life and set me on my current career path.

Jeremy has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. As guilty as I feel admitting this as a teacher, there’s no denying that Jeremy was my favorite student. He may always be. While other teachers seemed exasperated by Jeremy’s autistic quirks, I got along with him easily. We hung out during lunch. He fixed the classroom computers and shared his unique life insights. He also easily passed a New York State Science Regents exam on his first try, which quickly shifted the school administration’s attitude from, “We have to get rid of this kid,” to, “We need this kid for our numbers.” Sadly, Jeremy didn’t exactly receive a stellar public education in the Bronx. I often wondered how much further he could have gone had he received stronger educational support from an early age.

Jeremy taught me that working with students with autism was what I wanted to do with my life. I began training with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, where I learned behavioral techniques for supporting children with autism in the classroom. Simply by circumstance, not choice, I began working with younger kids. This was because nearly all New York City and State funding for autism education is geared toward early intervention and preschool services. When children with autism reach kindergarten, they often lose their services. So it’s actually quite difficult to make a living as an autism educator to older kids in New York. There’s simply no money there. I miss teenagers like Jeremy, but, as it turns out, teaching the little ones is my forte. This is mostly because I’m a 34-year-old with a four-year-old sense of humor.

I now provide preschool and home-based services to children with autism spectrum disorders, mostly in Manhattan. I also occasionally work with children with other special needs. Last school year, I worked closely with a boy recovering from leukemia. He is now in full remission and about to begin life as a mainstreamed kindergartner! I have become a huge proponent of mainstreaming at an early age, and I love working with special needs students in mainstream pre-school classrooms. My goal is to help them prepare for fully mainstreamed kindergarten and elementary school educations. They, in turn, help me stay grounded.

In the ideal scenario, a few months into the school year, if I do my job well, an outsider will walk into the pre-school classroom and have little idea which teacher is the special needs teacher and which kid is the special needs student. My first few months with a student can be challenging, but with the right approach, the next six months of the school year are relatively smooth. Being a special education itinerant teacher (SEIT) requires a balancing act of supporting, but not stifling, my students. I often interact with the other kids in the classroom, and they tend to see me as one of their teachers, too. Most of them don’t really know (or care) that I’m officially there for one student. At the pre-school age, there is little stigma in receiving special needs services. The kids have not yet developed that sort of prejudice. If there is any stigma, it comes from the adults.

Preschool started this week. I had a wonderful summer of teaching part-time and hanging out with kids on city playgrounds. There are moments when I can’t believe I get paid to do this (tempered, of course, by moments when I don’t get paid nearly enough to do this.) This summer, there were more of the former. I worked with two students at their summer camps, and I worked weekends with one student at his family’s country home. Summer seemed to have a superhero theme. Two girls showed up to summer camp dressed as Spider-Man and Batman for no apparent reason (other than the obvious cool factor). I played superheroes on the playground and blasted off with a (highly imaginative) student from the tip of the Egyptian pyramids into outer space. (Yes, my job is cooler than yours.) I saw preschoolers develop seemingly random, yet fervent obsessions with the state of Wyoming and chicken pot pie.

I also experienced several language breakthroughs with a student, one of which came in the form of a clear request: “I want Sesame Street numbers!” So we watched Count von Count, who I quickly realized, like Jeremy, has a clear case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Mwahaha! I then realized I was diagnosing a Sesame Street character with special needs and that I needed a break from kids before September. This school year, I am working with students at two Manhattan preschools and providing home-based, early intervention autism services to several two-year-olds. There is nothing quite like welcoming nervous and excited preschoolers to their first week. The two boys I will work with at school this year are old pros, having attended preschool before. But things are about to get more serious for them. It’s time to start learning to read, write, and share blocks without fighting.

It sometimes astonishes me that I found my perfect career. I never meant to be a teacher. I meant to be a serious journalist. But when my grad school classmates went off to write for esteemed media outlets, I went off to teach special needs kids. It made no sense. It was the best decision I ever made.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Palin and Special Education: A Closer Look

Jennifer Laviano is a special needs attorney in Sherman, CT. Her guest opinion piece appears here with her permission. - Miss Dennis

Dear Clients, Friends, and Colleagues,

As we near the Presidential election in just two weeks, I have been asked by many of you to comment on my thoughts on Gov. Palin and what she can and will do for special education students. As an attorney whose practice focuses exclusively on the representation of children with disabilities, I always investigate candidates' positions and records on this very critical moral and financial issue. One of my clients recently suggested that I share with others what I have learned, and so here it is.

When Gov. Palin first came to my attention, I was, as I am sure all of you who care about this issue, intrigued to have someone on the national platform who talks about children with special needs. Since hearing her say this repeatedly in speeches, I have been waiting, and waiting, to hear some specifics on special education reform. Most of all, I want to know what her stance is on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal statute that governs special education. The IDEA is up for reauthorization by Congress in 2010, and it is crucial that it reflect the policies and funding structure necessary to protect and appropriately educate our children with disabilities. I needed to know what Gov. Palin thinks about the future of special education legislation in this country.

I know where the other three on the tickets stand. Senators Obama and Biden have issued position statements on the IDEA to various parent groups, strongly supporting full funding for the IDEA and the rights of children with disabilities and their parents. The Obama-Biden website has a direct link to the ticket's position on disabilities. Senator McCain's website does not have such a link and neither he nor Palin have provided those positions on the IDEA to parent advocacy groups. Senator McCain does have a supportive position on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) which has been published. I was, however, extremely disappointed in his discussion on the Senate floor regarding the Reauthorization of the IDEA 2004, in which he expressed his concerns that parents of children with disabilities who have to sue to secure appropriate services for their children under the Statute and win against districts shouldn't have their attorneys' fees covered. This is not just a matter of self-interest for me; it is the difference between families, especially poor families, being able to vindicate their civil rights or not. But I knew those things, I did not know where Palin stood, and I wanted to find out.

Having waited for some specifics from her on just how she is going to be an advocate for children with special needs in the White House, I finally got close. In her recent interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, she was asked what her position is. While never mentioning the IDEA at all or what needs to be changed, kept, or fixed in it, she stated that the issue that needs to be addressed is "equal access" for children with special needs.

EQUAL ACCESS? Seriously? We HAVE equal access - that is what the original version of the Statute fought for in the early 70's, when children with disabilities were literally prohibited from attending our public schools. Equal access is so far in the minority of what needs to be addressed in special education I hardly know where to begin. Our problems are not that children with disabilities aren't allowed into the buildings; our problem is what happens when they get there! What about a Free and Appropriate Public Education? What about "meaningful educational benefit?" What about giving children with special needs the tools to thrive and prosper and be fully independent adults, which is what the IDEA now stands for? We are decades from equal access being the key question, and apparently Gov. Palin is not aware of that fact.

Now, you might say, "Well, Jen, I am a parent of a child with special needs and I didn't know that either." Okay, my response: "Are you running for Vice President of the United States? Are you telling the nation that you would see yourself as the voice for those children within the federal government? If you were, do you think you might have looked into it a little bit?"

It is not terribly surprising to me that Gov. Palin's views on this are so far outdated. I have traveled to Alaska to give a speech to parents and professionals on the subject of the rights of children with special needs, in particular children with autism spectrum disorders. I was stunned by how far behind the State was from the vast majority of the rest of the country on the education of children with disabilities. Perhaps, for Alaskans, "equal access" IS the problem, but it is certainly not the case in Connecticut or most of the rest of the country. I am in regular contact with a colleague of mine who is a parents' attorney in Alaska, who has had to fight tooth and nail for children with special needs in Alaska simply to secure them the most basic of services that we take for granted here. I for one do not want the rest of the country to use Alaska's system of educating our most vulnerable children as a paradigm.

Okay, yes, you all know I'm a liberal ... but that's one of the reasons that I chose to get into the field of representing children with special needs, because I believe in my heart that this last bastion of civil rights is absolutely critical to fight. We need major fixes in our special education system, and if you think that who is in the White House does not effect you on this issue, you couldn't be more wrong. IT MATTERS. It matters in terms of funding and at least as, if not more, importantly, enforcement. Our IDEA enforcement, even in States like CT where we have zealous advocacy, is woefully inadequate. School districts routinely violate the procedural and substantive rights of children and parents and only in a small fraction of cases are they taken to task for it. It also matters because the next President will have at least a few Supreme Court appointments to make. We have had more decisions from the United States Supreme Court in the area of special education law in the last few years than we had for decades. Those decisions have tremendous impact on whether parents have the right to have proper evaluations done for their children, how and when parents can exercise their rights under the IDEA, who has the burden of proof in Due Process Hearings, and a myriad of other issues which directly impact our children with special needs.

Whether we properly educate and embrace our children with disabilities is crucial to the future of this country, as the cost of NOT doing so will be far larger than the cost of doing so ... leaving out the fact that it happens to also be the right thing to do in a great society. This issue should be front and center for any candidate for the White House, and I write to let you know that, at least as far as Gov. Palin is concerned, it has been an opportunity not only missed, but frighteningly misunderstood. It does not bode well for her, for us, or most importantly, for the children we love who need and deserve better in an "advocate in the White House."

I will be casting my vote on November 4th for Obama-Biden, and I hope you will join me. They and their party have been on the side of children with special needs historically, and they will be on their side in the future. As our economy implodes and State and local educational budgets tighten, if we do not turn this around now, I fear that we will, once again, be fighting only for "equal access" for our kids. That is unacceptable to me.

Finally, for any of our more conservative clients who I may have offended, my apologies; I respect your views even if I disagree with them.

Thanks for reading.

Best, Jennifer Laviano
The Law Offices of Jennifer Laviano, LLC
Sherman, CT

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It Bears Repeating

(Originally posted on the New York Times Lesson Plans blog.)

Two of my preschool students with autism are currently going through stages of repeating their favorite words and phrases over and over again. Both students repeat lines from their favorite children’s videos and books — stories and episodes of “Dora the Explorer,” “Blue’s Clues,” and “Max and Ruby.”

Amanda repeatedly says, “Benny the Bull,” who, as I was slow to realize after hearing his name dozens of times one day, is her favorite “Dora” character. She has also memorized many of Benny the Bull’s lines from the show, and she repeats them at seemingly random moments. David repeats the word “notebook.” At first, I thought he just really liked the word, or that he was proud of himself for learning it. Then, after he began repeating lines from “Blue’s Clues,” I realized “notebook,” came from Joe’s “handy dandy notebook” in the show. And lest this excessive repetition be blamed solely on TV and DVD’s, one of my former students, who rarely watched TV, repeated her favorite scene from the book “Harold and the Purple Crayon” — “moose and porcupine eating pies!”

While the ability to remember and repeat words is an important step in every child’s language development, many children with autism tend to repeat words excessively and in socially inappropriate contexts. A child with autism may repeat the same word or phrase hundreds of times a day (which can drive their parents and teachers a little batty). In the autism education field, repeating lines from movies, TV shows and books is known as scripting, or echolalia. (Some people use the terms scripting and echolalia interchangeably, while others distinguish echolalia as repeating words spoken by live people, not in shows.)

Scripting was famously portrayed in the film “Rain Man,” when Raymond Babbitt, the autistic character played by Dustin Hoffman, memorized and repeated Abbot and Costello’s comedic skit, “Who’s on First.” In the film, Raymond seemed to use scripting to calm himself in stressful social situations. At times, my students appear to script for a similar calming effect; at others, it seems to be meaningless, out-of-control repetition. Despite the many challenges this behavior presents, it is possible for young students with autism to use it in socially appropriate contexts. Encouraging them to do so is one of my goals as a special education teacher.

Many of my students have proven themselves capable of memorizing a word or phrase, associating it with a particular emotion or social situation, and then attempting to use the phrase when they encounter a similar emotional or social situation. One of my favorite examples of this is described in Paula Kluth’s book, “You’re Going to Love This Kid.” Kluth tells the story of a boy who said, “Go to hell, lieutenant,” when he was upset. The boy was scripting from the film “A Few Good Men” and he correctly associated the phrase with anger. In another case, one of my students memorized the phrase, “Hello, everyone. How are you today?” — one of his teachers often said this when she entered the classroom.

One day, when I brought the boy home, he walked into his family’s apartment and said, “Hello, everyone. How are you today?” His parents and I were floored. At the time, this was by far the most socially meaningful language the boy had ever used. While he had learned the phrase through rote memory, he showed progress in social communication — a skill that children with autism often lack — by correctly associating the phrase with entering a room and greeting people.

One thing I cannot do as a teacher is miraculously change the way my students’ brains develop or the way they process language. There is clearly something in the brain development and language processing of children with autism that differs from their typically developing peers. Genetic researchers, such as the scientists with the Autism Genome Project, are currently trying to pinpoint the root causes of the disorder.

We don’t yet have all the scientific answers to what causes autism, and it remains to be seen whether a cure will be developed, or whether a “cure” is something that would be welcomed by those affected by autism. Many parents have told me they would welcome a cure, while many higher-functioning autistic adults are offended by the notion of needing to be cured. In the meantime, there are language development techniques that teachers and parents can use to help children with autism begin to socially connect with their peers and families.

One of the programs I learned while training and working with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders is a social questions activity. Using the basic principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), I am able to teach my students to answer questions ranging in difficulty from, “How old are you?” to “What was your favorite part of the book?” While my students typically learn to answer these questions in a rote manner by memorizing the questions and answers, the next step is to take what they have learned through memorization and use it in socially meaningful situations at school.

David, the boy who repeats lines from “Blue’s Clues,” was able to quickly learn the answers to many socially relevant questions. During snack time at preschool last week, I asked him, “What’s your mommy’s name?” We had worked on this question, so he quickly answered correctly. Then I asked one of his classmates at the snack table what her mommy’s name was, and soon all of the children at the table were telling their friends their mommy’s names. We then did the same activity with daddy’s names and favorite foods. (Of course, teachers should be sensitive to kids who may not have both parents.)

These are the kinds of basic, pre-school level conversations that come naturally to most kids. But David needs to be taught to participate in such conversations in a step-by-step manner. That’s where breaking things down through ABA becomes helpful. While I am not a strict ABA practitioner in the classroom, I do find it helpful to use the basic principles of breaking larger tasks into smaller steps and quickly reinforcing my students for achieving each step. Within ABA, there is a more recently developed model that I use called the Verbal Behavior Approach. This model is especially useful for language development activities.

While I can’t get inside David’s brain to know for sure what he’s thinking, something does seem to click for him when he participates in these kinds of peer conversations at school, and he seems to enjoy them. Being able to use his memorized language with his peers, and hearing that they have different answers to the same questions, does appear to be helping him connect with them socially. Throughout the pre-school year, our social question activities will become more complex and, step-by-step, we will build up to asking questions and initiating peer conversations. The ultimate goal is for David to begin talking with his peers more spontaneously. Spontaneity in language is difficult to teach, but I aim to give David more opportunities to reach this stage by pushing him beyond his scripted comfort zone.

Language issues like this, which can be so exasperating for parents and teachers, do not disappear overnight, but I find it helpful as a teacher to keep in mind that the same strong memorization skills my students use while scripting can be shaped into socially meaningful language.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

3rd NY Times Piece Now Up

My third New York Times blog piece is now up. It's about the new school in Washington Heights, NYC, that I mentioned below. As always, feel free to leave a comment on the Times blog, whether you agree with the school's model or not!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

New School in NYC, Washington Heights

I am on the fundraising advisory board for a wonderful new middle school that will open in Washington Heights, NYC, in September '09.

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP)
was featured on the front page of the New York Times back in March. As a member of the school's Capital Campaign Advisory Board, I will be raising $100,000 in the next year for the school's new building. To accomplish this, I will recruit 100 Finance Committee members, who will either donate or raise $1,000. TEP Charter School is a non-profit 501(c)3 educational organization. Since I only know a handful of people who can donate $1,000, I am focusing on recruiting people who can commit to raising $1,000. It only takes knowing 100 people who will donate $100, 20 who will donate $50, etc!

If interested in becoming a Finance Committee member for TEP Charter school, please get in touch! You can email me at Also, stay tuned for my third piece for the NY Times Lesson Plans blog!