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'Agricultural specialisterne': rural employment revolution for those with Autism
The subject of the last few posts has been on Autism-related events and organisations in the state of Connecticut.
The variety of Bridgeport, Connecticut school programs serving students on the autism spectrum is increasing...
The students in Room 309 at Madison School can tell you what autism looks like.
Ethan Aponte says it's rocking back and forth. To Jonathan Revolus, it is worrying and fidgeting. For Kenny Jones it's pacing.
The programs serving students like Ethan, Jonathan and Kenny, however, can look as varied as the students themselves.
At Beardsley School, regular and special education teachers work together in a "co-teaching" autism program. While at Johnson School there is a full continuum of services for those on the spectrum, from self-contained classes that offer intensive instruction, to regular classes where autistic students work with mainstream students, but are provided extra support.
"Every child on the spectrum is an individual. Students have the right to their neighborhood school, but if that is not working and parents agree, we have other options in our district," said Doreen Tilt, supervisor of the district's Autism Spectrum Disorder Program.
..."I don't want to bring them back if it doesn't fit," said Tilt.
With the district 10 years, Tilt has slowly been developing a program that pulls from a number of nationally recognized models, but which is also custom-designed to meet the needs of the students it serves. Bridgeport's program is gaining national, and international attention. Delegations from Holland and Japan have visited. Tilt has been asked to present at the annual Autism Conference in Columbus, Ohio, in conjunction with educators from Southern Connecticut State University's Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Last month, that center presented Tilt with its first-ever school administrator's award.
"Every district is different," said Ruth Eren, director of the autism center at Southern. "Every district strives to meet the needs of their children in the spectrum. I think in Bridgeport you have a person in Doreen Tilt who has certainly addressed the complexities of autism. She always has the best interest of children at the core of what she does."
Marisola Vigil, a parent, says Tilt is a matchmaker.
Two of Vigil's three children are on the autism spectrum, one in school at Johnson, the other at Madison. The family came from Norwalk and Vigil remembers being so petrified at the programs she would find here she considered putting her children in an out-of-district placement. At a planning and placement team (PPT) meeting held to weigh her options, however, Vigil said she was impressed with what Tilt offered her.
"She offered them classes to fit their needs," said Vigil. That meant separate schools, but each program seemed right.
In some classes students learn to raise their hands, ask for help, take a deep breath and, perhaps most important, identify autism and advocate for themselves.
LaTonya Mooney, whose son DyShaun Sistrunk, 12, has been in the program two years said she appreciates the skills he is learning.
"It really is teaching him to cope with the outside world," said Mooney.
In the self-empowerment class led by teacher Keriann Maxelix and assisted by Kevin Sheehy, a social worker, and Jessica Caird, a speech pathologist, DyShaun raises his hand often and is quick with answers.
"Autism, it's like a disorder," DyShaun said, when asked to explain autism. "More boys get it than girls, but autism happens out of nowhere."
DyShaun spends much of his day in regular classes. That is the goal for all students in the program.
At Beardsley, the co-teaching model includes first-grade teacher Dina Vogt, special education teacher Tara Oliwia, two teacher aides and 17 students, some with autism. It is impossible to tell them apart. Little pictures that illustrate class rules throughout the room seem to aid all students, not just the ones who have trouble reading.
"Some of these kids just need that little push before regular ed," Oliwia said, pointing to one student who cried the first couple of weeks he was there and is now on the honor role.
"We work as a team," said Vogt, who has been teaching 13 years, two as a co-teacher.
Tilt spends a lot of time training teachers and working with parents. One of the reasons Tilt was recognized was because of her extensive outreach to parents.
Jacqueline Kelleher, vice chair of the school board and a special education professor at Sacred Heart University, has twin boys on the autism spectrum. They are sophomores at Bassick High School.
"It's been the best programmatic experiences we have ever had," said Kelleher, who used to be the autism program liaison between the state Department of Education and school districts.
Her job was to consult on appropriate, compliant programs and train on autism spectrum guidelines.
"I know when a program is not working," said Kelleher. "I know when a program is pretending to work. I know when a program stands out above others. The latter is the case of Bridgeport. Before, we had great teachers, but they didn't always know how to help. It is the first time they have ever been to a PPT meeting where people were fluent in autism."