Helping Children With Autism Part 1
“Learning should be fun.” That’s Alecia Ellis’ philosophy of teaching children. “We have fun every day . . . . We take things that children naturally like to do and teach them how to enjoy them, interact with them, and share them with others.”
Alecia is talking specifically about her work with children who have autism. Autism—a spectrum disorder—is a complex developmental disability that can impact a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others and the environment.
When Alecia was deciding on a career over two decades ago, she knew she wanted to help people. At first she began to pursue nursing, but switched to speech-language pathology on the advice of a school counselor. “After the intro class I was hooked for life,” she remembers.
Alecia later accepted a position with the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada and has been there for over 22 years. During the last three years she’s worked as an itinerant speech pathologist on the Low Incidence Disabilities Team. The team provides technical assistance, staff development, support, and training for all district professionals who work with students with low incidence disabilities.”
Alecia became deeply involved in working with children with autism. She describes the impetus for this interest: “Parents were demanding more appropriate services for their children with autism from our school district. These are parents who are involved in parent support groups and are quite knowledgeable about the disability and the laws related to it. One of the things the parents requested more than anything else was a methodology called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) . . . . They were concerned that students weren’t getting meaningful benefit from their current program.”
She elaborates, “We had to respond to their requests . . . . Unfortunately, educators are not prepared by current teacher training programs to teach children who have autism. We decided to look into ABA. Although this method wasn’t new to us, our impression was that it was too rigid for our needs.”
But, Alecia wanted to remain open-minded about the possibilities of ABA and decided to learn more through a staff development opportunity. She and another colleague from the district participated in a six-week internship at Douglass Developmental Disability Center at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
“We wanted to help teachers find a way to provide effective education for students with autism . . . . We gained intensive hands-on experience in ABA and found out how it can be used as a very effective methodology for helping students with autism learn how to learn,” she explains.
Alecia provides more details: “ABA is based on the principles of the learning theory, operant conditioning. It gained popularity with a landmark study of students with autism done by Ivar Lovaas in the ’70s at UCLA. The results from his longitudinal research demonstrated moderate to very impressive gains for students. That’s what brought the approach to the attention of so many educators. Along with a book titled, Let Me Hear Your Voice, by Catherine Maurice. The book describes one parent’s struggle through the diagnosis and remediation of not just one, but two of her own children with autism.”
While participating in the internship, Alecia also learned about Discrete Trial Instruction, an important component of ABA. It’s the teaching method of “breaking skills down to their most learnable units.” She gives an example, “If I wanted to teach a child with autism how to label pictures, I would begin by teaching the child how to attend. Basically this means to teach the child how to sit down, look, and focus on what is being presented to him or her. Believe it or not, this is really hard for young students with autism.”
When Alecia and her colleague returned to the district after their training, they submitted a proposal to create a model demonstration classroom. She explains, “We discovered by poll that many teachers in the district had never had any educational training on the disability. We thought it was important to find a training model that could impact more teachers and give them the opportunity to practice this methodology hands-on. So we decided to develop the model demonstration classroom.”
An organization called Autism Partnership was the driving force behind the classroom’s creation. Alecia received tremendous input and guidance from Dr. Ron Leaf and his staff at Autism Partnership in developing the class and the training program. She found Dr. Leaf’s application of ABA more “school-friendly”—in other words, more functional for students in a school environment.
The model demonstration classroom was designed to serve preschool- to kindergarten-aged students who meet the eligibility requirements of autism spectrum disorder. The classroom was set up like a typical early childhood education classroom with fun, theme-based activities.
Alecia describes how the classroom works, “For a six-week period, a classroom teacher, a teaching assistant, a speech-language pathologist, an occupational therapist, and other service providers are trained together in the model demonstration classroom. They receive hands-on training in ABA and Discrete Trial Instruction. They also receive extensive feedback.” Alecia emphasizes that the approach they use is natural and flexible with “generalization built in right from the start.”
Once they have finished training, the educators return to their own classrooms to apply the methods and techniques they have learned. Their classrooms become “replication sites” of the model demonstration classroom.