As diagnoses of autism rise nationally, Salem-Keizer School District (SKSD) is responding with approaches and policies to help every child receive a successful education.
The Center for Disease Control, which issues reports on autism biennially, identified a staggering 1 in 59 US children as having autism spectrum disorders in 2014. This is a 15% increase from 1 in 68 in 2012, and considerably higher than when the agency began tracking in 2000, when it determined 1 in 156 children had autism.
Even if some children are misdiagnosed, its clear that SKSD, with 42,000 students and tasked with teaching so many with such diverse needs – must be proactive.
Jennifer Rowan, an Autism Consultant for SKSD with years of experience working with students with communication and behavior needs, is enthused. “As a district,” she says, “when I think back 19 years, so many strategies teachers were just learning [to serve students with autism] are now common. It’s exciting to see that we’ve grown tremendously.”
Each child is unique, but core qualities of children on the autism spectrum include difficulties with social communication, repetitive patterns of behavior and cognitive challenges. The children are often more sensitive to light or sound than their peers, and can have difficulty completing long-term tasks.
Such symptoms make general education classrooms frustrating for a child with autism and challenging for other students and teachers. In order to serve all children, SKSD takes specific and nuanced action.
It begins with an evaluation. Parents must consent before the district evaluates a child, says Calley Owings, Special Education Coordinator for SKSD. If schools suspect a child might have special educational needs, an assessment is conducted by a team of individuals that include a school psychologist and a speech pathologist.
“The team evaluates the child for autism eligibility according to minimum Federal standards,” Owings says, “to determine if the child meets the criteria of an educational eligibility of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
Currently, 945 students qualify for school autism services in SKSD.
There is a difference between a medical diagnosis – such as that of the CDC – and a district’s identification of who might qualify for educational autism services. If a student has a medical diagnosis but is succeeding academically, for example, they might not be found eligible to receive school services.
In cases where the child is determined eligible, a second SKSD team develops an Individual Education Program (IEP) specific for them. Because each student is unique, IEPs are targeted to the child’s personal strengths and challenges and identify specific educational goals. Again, “parents are full partners in this process,” says Rowan.
An important objective of IEPs is to place each child in the least restrictive environment possible. “Students can receive services in a general education class, a combination of general and special education settings, or in specialized classes,” Owings says, “depending on what the team determines best meets the student’s needs.”
This range of available support means that, at one end of the spectrum, a high school student might just receive some coaching with conversational skills. Another student, however, might need constant, direct instruction with a special education teacher.
Each student’s placement is reviewed at least annually.
“Kids need these services,” says Janet Prats, Principal of Sumpter Elementary School in South Salem for the last 11 years. “I’m excited to have students in special education, and I feel proud that we can help.” Sumpter Elementary enrolls 538 students in Kindergarten through 5th grade and currently provides services for about 32 students with an educational autism diagnosis.
Prats is known in the district for being supportive of all students, including those with autism. In fact, she covers classrooms while special ed teachers read a section of the latest book she recommends, Far From The Tree. All the materials she promotes, she says, “tell us not to put limits on what kids can learn.”
Bri Kim agrees. A Sumpter special ed teacher for four years, she employs a range of techniques to support the students in her classroom.
To begin with, tranquil music is always playing. Lights are either turned off, or blue fabric is stretched across them to create a calmer environment. A private library is available, areas are provided for each child’s belongings and a smaller class size and teaching space help kids with autism can focus. Kim’s room also offers noise-canceling headphones “that can be used during fire drills or assemblies or simply in class,” she says.
Because students with autism are often more successful with visual, rather than verbal, methods, Kim rewards respectful behavior or other achievements with tickets. A card is used to show students how many they have earned, for even more visual support.
Other visual tools teach students how to self-regulate by helping them identify the emotions they are experiencing. “We do a lot of self-regulation teaching every day,” Kim says. “If students are over stimulated, we help them recognize this and figure out ways to handle it.”
Posters identify emotions by a number of color zones; red means out of control and aggressive, blue means tired and sad. By connecting feelings with colors, it’s easier for students with autism to understand what they are experiencing.
“It’s okay to be in every zone,” Kim says, “it’s just how you learn to handle it. We also teach what’s a ‘big’ or ‘small’ problem ‘ so we don’t have a ‘red-zone’ reaction to a small problem.”
An even quieter room is adjacent to Kim’s classroom so students who are overstimulated can learn how to return to a place where they are ready to learn again.
In fact, Owings says that starting last year, 2017-2018, all elementary schools in SKSD were provided with materials and equipment to create a ‘sensory room’ for all students to use when needed for sensory regulation. “These supports,” she says, “are used proactively before instruction, to either help alert or calm student so that they are ready for learning.”
One of Kim’s students might choose to take a break in a quiet tent in the nearby sensory room, or might want a “blanket break” using a blanket with quilted squares filled with pellets that creates a soothing “hug.” Afterward, the student returns to the special ed classroom, ready again to tackle school subjects.
The combination of all these techniques – and many more – help students with autism in SKSD succeed.
“The greatest joy,” Prats says, “is the partnerships we can form with families who were hesitant or fearful of their kids, to see them feel like their kids are safe and happy.”
She is moved by the inclusion the school promotes for all students. She recalls a meeting when a parents club was considering a climbing structure for playgrounds. “And the comment I felt so proud about,” she says, “was parents agreeing, ‘lets make sure we can make this for kids with autism, too.’ And I looked around that room – and there wasn’t one parent there with a child with autism.”
As the second largest school district in the state with a vision statement of, “All students graduate and are prepared for a successful life,” SKSD is responsible for educating thousands of children. Prats believes the district is succeeding.
“I think that with every conversation I have,” she says, “there’s an understanding that school is for all our students.”