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Expanding Learning Practices and Opportunities for Our Students with Autism

Teacher: Christopher Burdman
School: Joseph P. Tynan Elementary

The Challenge:
At the Tynan, 39% (90/232) of students are identified as having Autism. This population
makes up more than half of our teaching load. As a specialty team comprised of Science,
Stem, Gym, and Music, we see all students and their diverse needs yet feel unable to properly meet theirs. We need a better understanding of our students with Autism, in order to establish useful practices and solid teaching curricula for them. We would like to motivate and engage them, while maintaining high expectations for quality work. We want to learn a variety of methods which have been proven to be effective in the classroom, to help our students with Autism to meet set expectations. Overall, we need to learn how to better communicate with our students with Autism in order to help them access the curriculum.


What did your team do about it?:
The team attended the 2019 Centers for Autism and Related Disabilities conference in January of 2020. With gained knowledge and strategies the Tynan Specialist team began to plan lessons and learning activities that are based on the identified ABA learning goals. Each specialist is currently working with the team of ABA specialists to ensure that the learning goals are being documented within the ACE software. The planning and implementation phase began immediately upon return from the conference. Each specialist independently created his/her classroom model and made adaptations and modifications based on gained knowledge at the CARD conference. Data collection will begin in March of 2020 and continue through the end of the school year.

Each specialist implemented visual supports and strategies such as pictures, schedules, timers, and visual reminders for our ABA strand students. Our visual schedules enable students to have consistency, know what to expect when they enter the classroom, be more independent, and transition better from one activity/center to another. We found that the more predictable the classroom routine was, with the support of visual reminders, students were more prone to attend the lesson, and there were fewer behavioral management issues.

Impact on Students:
After attending the conference students have received a more consistent learning experience across specialty subjects. This includes Gym, Music, Science and STEM. The use of ABA strategies as well as the move to center based learning has provided consistency of expectation and in return decreased behaviors.

In our Baby strand classes, there are fewer incidences of inappropriate behaviors such as climbing walls, hitting/fighting, among other behaviors. Students in all the strand classes are able to follow a routine, sit quietly during instruction, and work in centers with support. They are also able to transition better between activities. Students are more engaged and are visibly happy about learning. Data collection was ongoing but interrupted due to the Covid-19 shutdown. Upon return to school based learning we will continue to gather data. Please see where we are with our current data:

We all work with a 3rd grader, student J who has Autism and attends our classes along with other students in a sub-separate ABA strand class. When school first started in the Fall, he had trouble staying on task, had to have fidget items/toys in his hands throughout the class, and antagonized other students repeatedly. Now, after more consistency and structure, visuals, timers, and token boards, student J is a classroom helper, follows all the classroom routines, attends to the lessons, and takes ownership of his learning with little to no redirection. We have witnessed tremendous growth in this student from the Fall to Spring semester, among many others.

Teacher Leadership and School Community:
We learned that we can effect change by seeking to understand. Once we were able to better understand our students with Autism, we could bridge the gap in learning by providing them with the tools they need to access the curriculum. With this knowledge, we are also able to advocate for our students with Autism, so that they can receive the right accommodations. We have grown as educators and leaders by being able to advocate for our students with Autism and effect changes that will enable them to receive the resources they need to learn effectively. The work increased our awareness and others, so that we are able to continue learning about our students with Autism. We learned that the Autism spectrum is vast, and requires us to be consistent in expanding our learning and resources to reach these students. We realize that knowledge and resources are always changing and being updated, so we plan to pursue further opportunities to enhance our knowledge of our students with Autism. One challenge that we often came in contact with was not having enough sensory items for students who need sensory input. Fortunately, the Rotary Club of Needham donated $10,000 to the Tynan School to create a sensory room for students. This was a major roadblock that we overcame as a school, and will certainly have a huge positive impact on our students with Autism, as the room provides a calm, supportive environment for students and allows students to adequately and safely engage with and explore their environment.

What’s Next?
As a team of Specialists, we often do not receive the same level of training when it comes to students with special needs, autism in particular. In the upcoming school year it is vital that we work with our ABA specialist from day 1 to create an environment and adapt curriculum to meet the individual needs of our Strand students. The communication pipeline is one of the high leverage changes that must continue. Identifying common student goals and trying to incorporate them into our daily lessons will help ensure their success and growth as students.

Helping Others:
The use of visuals is pertinent. Schedules, activities and even commonly used communications such as bathroom or break time can be turned into visuals. This helps students not only learn through hearing but also by seeing and can assist in classroom flow and success. There was a book titled Nick Has Autism, which I found very helpful. At our school, we have a mix of General Education students and Autistic students. Nick Has Autism centers around including children who may act a little differently than typically developing children. It is all about compassion and understanding, which is a great skill for children to learn.
The CARD Conference, overall, was very helpful. It gave us an opportunity to learn about Autism as well as meet many adults living with Autism. I have taken many strategies into my Physical Education class including a visual schedule, a “choice chart,” where students have an opportunity to make a choice of what they want for exercise, and sign language for bathroom, breaks and feelings.