The Evolution of Morning Circle Time

November 21, 2008

Raise your hand!
No one raises their hand.
What month is it?
Someone wiggles to the floor.
Put the card up there.
He walks away with the card.
Come sit down.
Try again.

Raise your hand!
A few fingers move.
What day is it?
He echoes Wednesday.
The card goes up there.
He reaches, you say help me.
Help me please.
Try again.

Raise your hand!
He raises his hand.
What year is it?
It’s not your turn.
But what did you say?
Good job friends!
Try again!


Virtual Reality as a Teaching Tool

September 29, 2008

     Kids love to work in order to earn computer breaks. I think this is not only true of students with autism. Many times I’ve gone to look over the shoulder of a student playing a Sesame Street word game or an ant puzzle game, and been impressed at their ability to respond appropriately to the prompts on the computer screen. ‘What letter goes in the soup to complete the work “_ittle?”‘ the computer will ask, and sure enough the non-verbal student will click and drag the “l” into the soup, completing the word “little.” I think that says a lot about the ability of the student to connect with and possibly learn from, the computer.

     Students with autism will often hear and memorize the words from their favorite TV shows or movies and “script” them later. While they might use these words instead of functional communication to get someones attention or entertain themselves, this at least shows some type of attention to what’s occuring on the screen. We need to find ways to use technology that students with autism are already attending to, as a means of teaching them things they aren’t currently learning.

Teaching students how to cross the street can be dangerous on the open rode. Explore ways of simulating this scenario before taking your students to cross the street.

Teaching students how to cross the street can be dangerous on the open rode. Explore ways of simulating this scenario before taking your students to cross the street.

     How about teaching students how to cross the street? This is definitly a challenge. On the one hand, crossing the street must be taught in realistic settings; however, teaching in realistic settings, like traffic, might not be the safest place to take a child with autism to learn a new skill. Really, what do you do? released important findings from the University of Haifa (located in Northern Israel,) in an article entitled “Virtual Reality Teaches Autistic Children Street Crossing.” This article explains a new technological approach to teaching the skill of street crossing. Essentially, the study consists of 6 children with autism, ages 7-12, who used a virtual computer to learn how to cross the street, (including skills like looking both ways before crossing.) At the beginning of the study, the students were scoring at a level 2 on the program (cars going slower across the street,) and after one month the students were scoring at a level 9 (cars moving quicker.) Quite an improvement! The study also found that these simulations transferred to real life scenarios.

     Profs. Josman and Weiss at the University of Haifa said that, “previous studies have shown that autistic children respond well to computer learning…” and “…their intelligence level or severity of their autism doesn’t affect their ability to understand the system.” Crossing the street is an extremely important part of independent living, so why aren’t we investing in this equiment for our special needs population?

     Additionally, IEEE Xplore also cited an abstract for an article which confirmed that regarding typically developing children, “The children in the training group significantly improved their street crossing abilities in the VR (virtual reality) simulation as well as in the real street crossing in comparison to the control group.” So we aren’t just talking about helping some kids, we’re talking about improving the safety of all kids.

     The IEEE Xplore article, Street Crossing by Typically Developed Children in Real and Virtual Environments,” also describes the equipment as being “low cost.” I wasn’t able to find a price range for this equipment but I was able to find a video clip on called “Crossing Streets: A K-12 Virtual Reality Application,” which shows participants in their research study using street crossing virtual reality programs to learn how to cross the street. It looks like all you need is the virtual reality equipment and possibly a projector? I’m going to look into this further, but for now check out the video:


September 25, 2008
        I sat in the last row of the minivan and watched the trees get thicker and greener as we drove into the mountains of Pennsylvania on our way north. In front of me a plump baby boy with a mop of black hair, watched and giggled as I made faces at him. Sitting next to him, his older sister drew pictures, and beside me, his older brother twirled a strand of beads. I adore each one of them, and was looking forward to attending this wedding with the eldest, the boy with the beads.
         I was impressed by the multiple nights of celebration that were to follow. Only after many late night parties did I sense any impatience from the parents because of the toll these parties placed on their children. Kids stayed up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning at these parties and young adults were up until 5 or 6. No alcohol. Just family reuniting in the celebration of marriage.
        Their hospitality was so gracious as they prepared and shared their homemade Indian dishes: meat patties, potato patties, and everywhere meat and rice. I told them their insistency on a full stomach was not foreign; “Would you like some more?” is a rhetorical question in my Italian family, usually asked while putting second helpings on someone else’s plate.

        This wedding, however, turned out to be a unique cultural experience for me. I believe their were 1,000 guests, the majority of which were either born in India or had family in India, and were of Muslim faith. I watched men take off their shoes and kneel to pray in the lobby of the huge reception hall. I was moved watching this culture join together to celebrate their faith: men on one end of the hall, women on the other. Tradition.
        And me with the boy with the beads.
        He was so good. Ahmed was better than most of hundred other children who scrambled around the hall in their finest shiny clothes. He played with his beads for hours. He even listened to me when I asked him to get down from a polished oak table with the huge glass vase of flowers on it. Jumping off the table with a laugh and a run, he scooped up his beads and darted down the hall.
        There was a lot of Urdu spoken at the wedding; Urdu that I didn’t understand. I’d only first left the country a month before for my honeymoon to Mexico. I guess I felt like I understood Ahmed’s language barrier, meaning his autism, a little bit better when I traveled to Mexico. And now he understood some of the language better than I did because most people there, including his parents, spoke Urdu in addition to English.
        Ahmed’s beads still singled him out a little. “Why is he doing that?” they would ask about the twirling beads. “How old is he?” the cousins and friends asked. “Ask him how old he is,” I told them, trying to help prompt Ahmed through a conversation. They were very curious to learn about autism and they told me about the boys and girls they knew at their own schools who had it.
       I learn something everyday by working with kids who have autism. For example, I’m always surprised when people don’t say ‘hello’ to one another at work, because this is a skill we drill constantly with our students. Also, transitioning from one activity to another is challenging for our kids and sometimes causes them drop and refuse to leave the spot they’re in. But we always insist that our students follow through once they’ve started something. That’s and important skill that people without autism need to remember too, to work hard and make sure our work is complete, whatever our job.
        My trip with Ahmed and his family taught me about another culture, but it also gave me a very cool insight into Ahmed as an individual. His presence at the wedding reminded me that even if I did not know the culture of those around me at that time, I could control my behavior despite feeling a little uncomfortable. It’s natural for me to mess with my nails when I’m nervous, anxious, stressed, etc. But for Ahmed, it’s natural to not really sit still, (unless he’s in a car, thankfully.) But he’s a wonderful kid and he deserves to go to these parties.
        In addition to that, there was the language barrier. By not understanding a lot of what was being said around me, I was limited in conversation. Ahmed is always limited in conversation, but attends to a lot of what is being said around him. I admire all people with autism for this and believe that it is the responsibility of those without autism to teach those with autism some mode of communication.
        On the ride home from the wedding, Ahmed’s mom joined us in the back of the van to comfort her children on the long trip. The soft skinned baby slept, the little girl watched Disney movies, and Ahmed rested with his mom. Two grown women, we sang with the mice as we delighted in the trip we’d just taken. One mom, one dad, 3 kids, a nanny, autism, and a gigantic Indian wedding. That’s a road trip.


The value of words: Sue Rubin

September 18, 2008

I am blessed to teach children. Period. I hear children’s hysterical giggles all day long and get super high fives and hugs. Sometimes my kids say my name. THAT is always rewarding.

Additionally, I am blessed to teach children with autism. My job as a teacher is to make sure children are progressing at their highest potential. My job as a teacher for children with autism is also to teach my students a method of communication that they did not naturally develop. This is far more rewarding than a paycheck, but the change is usually very gradual. The time that it takes children with autism to learn a method of communication is based on so many factors: the child himself (or herself,) the consistency of his or her teachers, the consistency of his or her parents, and much more.

Sue Rubin turned 30-years-old in May of this year. Until age 13, she had no way of communicating. At that point, she began using fascilitated communication, which gave her the opportunity to communicate with the world around her. From there she was able to express her dreams and realized that she wanted to go to college. As an adult she has attended Whittier College and currently tours and presents at autism/special ed conferences. I encourage you to read the transcript from her December 2003 Chicago TASH transcript here. The following video is a clip from CNN’s 2004 Academy Award Nominated documentary, “Autism is a World”:

As autism awareness increases, stories like Rubin’s will not be so remote and fascinating. As my students learn more words and use them more spontaneously, I am encouraged every day that they will grow up to be a lot like Rubin: not “cured” of autism necessarily, but individually conscious of the challenges they face as persons with autism.

Introduction to Applied Behavior Analysis

September 14, 2008

Alyssa Block is a teacher at New York PS 177 and has a great video on, entitled “Introduction to Applied Behavior Anaylsis,” that talks about her use of Applied Behavior Anaylsis for the students in her classroom. Her video gives a broad overview of important components for an A.B.A. classroom:

1.) Take data: Block talks about the importance of taking data. Charting what’s happening, (i.e. what the student is doing well with, what the student needs help with, what the antecedents are to behaviors, etc.,) will help you recognize what is going to help that student progress. For example, if you find that every time a student is asked to sit through 30 minutes of music class they become extremely agitated and non-compliant, then 30 minutes is not the right place to start. Begin by reinforcing the student for remaining in music class for 30 seconds, then increase their time in music as the data supports that they can handle 30 seconds.

2.) What’s reinforcing?: Block reminds us that a “reinforcement assessment,” (or “preference assessment” as we refer to it where I teach,) is important because it allows us to find out what motivates the students to learn. Block tries to stay away from edible reinforcement and says that many of her students like to work for the computer, (as do mine,) but she also has students who work for high fives, playing the piano, and puzzle pieces.  I’ve shared with new teaching assistants that preference assessment can be conceptualized as a paycheck. We all need and want our paychecks, but have to work first to earn them. Once you’ve found out what is reinforcing to a student, you can remind them that “First we work, then we get (computer, high fives, piano, etc.)”

3.) Visual schedule: In the YouTube video there are many examples of visual schedules, which allow students to see where they are and where they’re going. For example, when I do morning circle time with my students, I have my students move their name from one side of the paper, (which says “home,”) to the other side of the paper, (which says “school”.) After they’ve completed this, I ask, “Where are you?” If they do not respond with “school,” then I prompt them to say this, allowing them to recognize their changes throughout the day. Children with autism have a very hard time breaking from routine and giving them visual and verbal reminders help them to transition from one activity to another more smoothly.

Brock also talks about the weekly trip to the supermarket that she takes with her students. She stated that she does this because many of her student’s parents have a hard time bringing their children to the supermarket because they swipe food off of the shelves and run up and down the isles. I commend Brock for doing this! Grocery shopping is a common concern for the parents of my students as well but it is often not addressed until the student is getting ready to leave school and begin a job. The sooner you can make students more comfortable with everyday tasks like going to the supermarket, the more likely it is that they will complete them independently as they get older.

There are many components to A.B.A. which help children with autism. These are just a few but they are a wonderful place to start. If nothing else, remember, everyone is motivated to work for different things. Find out what your students are motivated to work for, reinforce them with it, and take data on how well they do once you begin this process. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Peer Tutoring: Why it’s a Good Idea

September 8, 2008

Peer tutoring is a wonderful way to educate children with autism. In the school where I teach, I’ve seen about a half dozen peer tutoring programs. Since our entire student body has children on the autism spectrum, the tutor is not a typically developing peer. The peer tutors at our school are the students who can attend to tasks fairly well, speak, and have mastered the skill which they will teach to their peer. (These are not specifically outlined requirements, just general prerequisite skills.)

In addition to the specialized school setting, I’ve also observed children with autism in general education environments and seen equally cool things happen. The behaviors that originally brought the child out of public education sometimes decrease. This could happen for a number of reasons, but it is most exciting when the child with autism has decreased behaviors because they are blatantly modeling the appropriate behavior of their peers.

I recently read an article from the Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders (2008) entitled “Teachers’ Peer Buddy Selections for Children with Autism: Social Characteristics with Peer Nominations.” (The abstract for this article can be viewed here.) I thought I might find out more information on peer tutoring for children at our school and ended up learning a little bit about how students in general education settings feel when asked to introduce their disabled peers to their own daily environment, academically, socially, and recreationally.

The study outlined the type of peer a teacher and/or their students would chose to tutor a child with autism. The results were as I’d predicted, that both teachers and their students would chose peers that were liked and popular over those who were not. This supported research from Sasso and Rude (1987), that popular peers are effective in social change. Not surprising, right?

Leaders are generally chosen because they are the most liked and they are most qualified for the job. This means that the public school systems need to enact more peer tutoring programs in a better effort to mainstream our children with autism into the general population. If the popular children are picked to peer tutor, they will influence other children toward this trend. Additionally, they will learn the importance of tolerance and patience while beginning to understand a whole new group of people.

I’ve seen very cool things happen with peer tutoring. I’ve seen children who would naturally retreat into themselves reinforce their peers with high five’s and ‘good job!’s. It’s very exciting when you see two peers who struggle to communicate as part of their disability, actually teaching one another. They’re each learning their own capabilities while empowering another individual with the same disability.

CCI: Canine Companions for Independence

September 2, 2008

While waiting in line at the grocery store yesterday, I noticed the woman in front of me had a beautiful sixteen-month-old black lab wearing a yellow and blue vest. The vest explained that the dog was a member of Canine Companions for Independence “in training.” I spoke with the woman until her bags were loaded up to go. She told me that she and her husband raise these dogs and then CCI finds individuals who need them.

The dog was very docile and of course reinforced with small treats when she obeyed her trainer. I asked the woman if CCI likes their dogs to be approachable by strangers and she said it was fine as long as the dog is behaving. This process of compliance and reward, whether edible or praise, reminded me of my work at school. I told the woman that I work with children with autism and that we use Applied Behavior Analysis when teaching; upon hearing this woman was eager to help, offering her card and her desire to visit our kids with some of the dogs.

I checked out CCI’s website and they offer: service dogs, skilled companion dogs, facility dogs, and hearing dogs. Their dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and cross breeds of the two, they know 40 commands, and children can acquire “skilled companion” dogs at age 5. I personally don’t know any individuals with autism who have Canine Companions, but I have seen the response these dogs get when they visit our school: the kids love them and the animals seem proud to be there.

So check out CCI! I think it’s important that all children are exposed to animals and offered the opportunity to safely interact with them.

Education and Self-Advocacy: Ari Ne’eman

September 2, 2008

I work with plenty of families who I know “don’t have it easy” because autism is a part of their daily lives. They hear the repetitive noises their children make all day long, they’ve bought the ID bracelets for their children in case they dart away at the super market, and they’ve spent countless amounts of time and energy investing in books, therapies, and medications.

The families I work with have children between the ages of three and nine. At this point in a child’s life, it is the parents’ responsibility to get them the best education possible to prepare their children for adult life, and these parents are ready and willing to do so.

But what are the older, more mature members of the autism community saying about their disability? Ari Ne’eman, president for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, compares having autism to having a particular race, religion, or sexual orientation. In his interview with NPR (listen here) Ne’eman stresses that people with autism are proud of who they are and the community they are building, which is focused on quality of life. Ne’eman says that people with autism are disabled by society because of “the education system that only meets needs for one type of student.”

If this were true, then teachers are not doing their jobs. It’s not a teacher’s job to read material and have their student’s memorize it, it’s to prepare their students for the best lives and jobs possible. We have plenty of tests: psychological, academic, visual, auditory, etc., and these tests do help us define a student’s current level of progress, but they don’t define where a student will go. Proper supports, patience, and research on the part of the students teachers, families, and friends however, can.

The president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network also advocates for mainstreaming and inclusion. Ne’eman believes that students sent to special education schools, much like the school where I teach, are already being labeled as unable to succeed in the same way as other students. By separating them Ne’eman thinks the student body is prohibited from forming a mutual understanding of all students. I will comment on this later.

Ne’eman says a lot of things that I would hope teachers already know. But just in case, I will summarize his thoughts here:

  1. Don’t define your kids as “low-functioning”: this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that benefits no one.
  2. Having “emotional numbness” is an inaccurate way to describe any individual: there are many ways to communicate and even those of us without autism have trouble accurately conveying our emotions from time to time.  Learn the different ways of communicating: PECS, keyboards, signing, etc., and teach them to your students.
  3. Consider embracing “neuro-diversity:” Instead of trying to “cure” your student’s autism, constantly strive to meet their educational needs.

I’m impressed by Ari Ne’eman. I don’t think having autism makes life easier, but that’s the thing about life- who has it easy? Everyone has a personal responsibility to enhance their own quality of life to the best of their ability. In addition, everyone has a personal responsibility to enhance the quality of the lives around them, especially if your job is teacher or parent.

“Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph over Autism”

August 28, 2008

“Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph over Autism”, by Catherine Maurice, chronicles a family’s journey through the realization that they have two children with autism, to diagnosis, therapies, and success. Catherine experiences  everything from the frustration and confusion caused by doctors who don’t know what they’re doing, to the joy of putting her children through therapies that succeed. When the therapies succeed, Catherine’s children go from being diagnosed as on the autism spectrum, to being off the autism spectrum all together. An inspiring story for educators and parents.

Clicking on the picture of the book will take you to where you can purchase a used copy for as little as $5.95. Amazon has a very cool feature called “Search Inside” where you can actually read excerpts from the book before you buy it, you just need to be signed in with a username and password to do so. Enjoy!