Virginia Schools Partner With VCU To Strengthen Education For Students With Autism | Community Idea Stations


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Virginia Schools Partner With VCU To Strengthen Education For Students With Autism

More than 19,000 young people with autism attend Virginia schools, a number that continues to grow each year. VCU’s Autism Center for Excellence is helping equip school districts with training and education to better serve children and parents. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Learning Curve.


When Jamie Sasser was preparing to enroll her son in elementary school, she felt anxious.

Jamie Sasser: He doesn’t hurt anybody, but he’s prone to epic meltdowns.

Sasser’s son Will attended a pre-school for students with autism. She wondered could a general education school handle him?

Sasser: Not just, “Oh we have this program,” but is this program the best program for my child. And with Will specifically it was behavior and they'll all say you know we we've had plenty of autism [students]. But if you know a kid with autism, you know one kid with autism, every child is different. And so I think each parent comes into it worrying about the specific issues that their individual child has. And so you're trying to make sure that it's a good fit.

Kristina Dunaway shared those concerns. Her son Raheen is eight years old. She says he’d never hurt anyone, but also doesn’t know his own strength.

Kristina Dunaway: When he gets upset he'll come up to you and just grab your arm like this and just put your arm in his face. And I'm like you can't do that to people. He doesn't squeeze you. But it's just scary because you don't know what he's going to do.

Like Dunaway and Sasser, Joakima Fisher’s son Gavin is mostly non-verbal. Things didn’t go well at his first school.

Joakima Fisher: There were instances he would toss his lunch trays or you know become upset but you wouldn't really know. So my concern putting him in school was because he was nonverbal, very minimum verbal.

All three families were connected with Chesterfield County’s Autism Day Program at Spring Run Elementary. Melissa Alcaraz is program coordinator. 

Melissa Alcaraz: Our classrooms are structured in a manner of just environmentally structured to be conducive to learning. Our students have workstations and individual workstations if that's what's appropriate for their needs or group workstations. There are visuals that are presented throughout the classroom to support not only their expression of language but also their understanding of language. So our students have delays in both receptive and expressive language skills and so we have visuals to support their understanding of what's taking place in their daily routine as well as to support the instruction that's taking place in the classroom.

Alcaraz says their program has strengthened after partnering with VCU’s Autism Center for Excellence, which works with districts across Virginia.

Alcaraz: The differences that we've noted are that we of course are getting more training, we have more support in that we have other people who can come in and make observations and notice things that maybe we didn't before. I think that it's more data driven; we're able to actually be able to have data to support the decisions that we're making. And I think that the teachers feel a sense of hope that just with more training that we can support the needs of our students.

A big focus is developing students behavioral skills, says Principal Christopher Hart and keeping them involved in the broader school community.

Christopher Hart: We have kids now who are coming to spend time in a fourth grade classroom, at morning meeting perhaps in the morning, socializing with kids that are there age appropriate peers. We have students that are having opportunities to eat lunch with other kids. We have kids coming to have recess with their kids. So we're really just trying to get ways to get them to have more social interaction with grade level peers

VCU’s Autism Center for Excellence is a partnership with other departments at the university and the State Department of Education and Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. They’ve embedded staff in school districts, provided technical assistance and offer a range of online and in-person trainings. Susan Palko and Taryn Traylor are program coordinators for Region 1, which covers Central Virginia’s schools districts.

Susan Palko: We work with general education teachers we work with bus drivers paraprofessionals special education teachers administrators so that they are be better able to understand and help to meet the needs of students with autism.

Taryn Traylor: We've seen in Region 1 that they are surveying some of the hardest to serve students in comprehensive public schools which is exciting. And now that they're doing that they're saying “Hey we need some extra support to get even better behavioral assessments into our schools.” And so Sue and I get the luxury of actually working with these teams to do that because like Melissa said earlier the staff here as well as across other region one school districts, they're very invested in keeping their students with autism as part of their communities just like their parents want for them. They want them to go to the same church that the kids in their neighborhood go to, they want them to go to the same grocery stores, they want them to go to Target and see people they know. And so we're very dedicated alongside the directors to make that happen.

Program coordinators often work with educators to implement positive behavior support strategies, and improve visual supports and structure in the classroom.  These techniques, says Palko, can benefit all students.

Palko: Visual supports can be pictures, it can be line drawings or it can be an object and it's used to help teach. We all use them every day to help us to bring understanding to what's happening. So we are looking at where the students level is and embedding them into the classroom so that they can better understand what's being expected of them throughout the day. And when we talk about structuring a classroom sometimes we have physical boundaries, so we have specific areas just like you would do within your house. You know you have your kitchen where you prepare food and you eat. There are certain areas of the classroom where you're going to do computer work or where you're going to do large group or where you're going to do small group or small group instruction. So it's helping those individuals with autism understanding what's being expected of them and asked of them throughout the day.

Since her son came to Spring Run, Joakima Fisher says he’s doing well.

Fisher: You can tell he loves say here. You can tell when he's excited about coming to school. I don't even hardly get any phone calls. I know school is not about babysitting but they're doing something right. You know because they are really taking care of your child they are really educating your child here. So it shows you there is a promise that your child is going to excel. They're going to succeed. Every child is different whether they are on the spectrum or not on the spectrum. You know I can hear a lot of similarities but then all children have individual you know differences about themselves.

Jamie Sasser says her son continues to have some behavior issues, but he’s talking more and applying what he’s learning at school when he gets back home.

Sasser: He's asking us for help. We can get him to work with us like we'll go, oK can you get this out the fridge, ok shut the door. He likes to eat ice cream and he knows when he's done he has to get up and put his bowl in the sink. And so it's neat to see that they have able to tap into things that we didn't know that he was capable of. And so we're still kind of early on and he still has a ways to go but it's just great to see that he's making progress and he's more than anything to us, it’s he's excited about it and he's happy to be here. He's not fighting every step of the way.

Kristina Dunaway has seen improvements in her son too.

Dunaway: I have just seen so many big changes. He still can't get too many words out but every now and then you'll hear something that resembles something. So I actually have it on my phone! We were playing with him one day, and I'm videotaping and my mom is like “Raheen, say mommy mommy.” And he finally said “Mama” and I said yes! Finally, that's my first “mom,” I'm taking it. You know it's just it is just wonderful to watch him make so many milestones. I'm just so excited for this program. It's been a godsend, literally.

Spring Run’s Melissa Alcaraz says the program is seeing results because of the additional training from VCU as well as the involvement of parents and school staff.

Alcaraz: I think that that shows in the progress that they're making. It matters to them, they come to school everyday to work, to support them, to benefit them. So I think that the success that we're seeing is because people are truly invested and have hope for the success of our students.

In addition to the intensive training within districts, VCU’s Autism Center for Excellence offers online courses including “Foundations of Autism” and “The Parent Playbook.” Dozens of webcasts go in-depth on issues like inclusion and sensory processing, and short “How To” videos offer practical tips for teachers, including providing reinforcement and establishing routines in the classroom. For Learning Curve, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.