Thursday December 13, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Concerns raised by parents about the learning environment and the education their autistic children receive in Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union did not appear to subside following a special two and a half hour meeting Monday to address the topic.

The first half of the meeting was designed to inform parents as well as the school board and community of the programs in place at the different grade levels. After an hour and 20 minutes, during which time about half the parents left, those who stuck around grew restless.

‘Dog and pony show'

After the meeting, one of those parents, Kelly Kennedy, emailed the board and others who attended the meeting to say he was more than disappointed the meeting felt like a "dog and pony show," in which no short term solutions were discussed.

Other parents said they did not believe the presentation appropriately portrayed the realities of the school situations, or if it did, then many students are falling through the cracks.

"Everything that was just said, if that was true, my son wouldn't be three and a half hours away," said Doug Crossman, whose autistic son is in a residential placement at the New England Center for Children after he regressed in the Bennington school system.


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Autism is a developmental disorder affecting the brain in which symptoms vary greatly from individual to individual regarding how it affects language, social skills, sensory systems and behavior. That variance as well as a fast-growing population with autism is making it difficult for schools to address students' needs, according to school officials.

The presentation included information given by leaders of autism programs in early education, elementary, middle school and high school levels and highlighted the autism services and models at each level.

Following the presentation the parents who remained as well as board members and staff broke into small groups to discuss what they believe is working and what needs to be improved.

One common concern that those groups discussed was the need for more continuity between the programs. Although each presenter said they work carefully with staff from a child's previous school during the transition, the approach at each level is not always aligned. Because children with autism often struggle with change, many people said there is a need for better coordination between the grade levels. Groups also said there must be better communication between staff at the various schools but also the other people in a child's individualized education plan (IEP) including the parents.

Parents also asked for there be more training specifically for teachers and paraprofessionals who work with autistic children, but also the rest of the school staff who may interact with them. There are more than 50 children with autism in the supervisory union, less than half of whom are in self-contained programs.

Special Education Director Kathy Buck said autism training is offered during staff in-service days, although those opportunities are among a list of professional development opportunities educators have to choose from.

In addition to basic training around autism, special educator Rachel Blumenthal said the district needs more teachers with an expertise in autism. "If you have an expertise you know right where to go, or different ideas to problem solve. These are kids who need solutions or things to be tried the next day, not four months down the road when you get a training," she said. "I'm a special educator, but autism is a whole other skill set."

Space, particularly at the elementary level, was another issue raised.

At the middle school a room called The Harbor is available for students with autism to go when they need space. "It's not a special class, it's a special environment that we created at the middle school. It was designed in collaboration with our occupational therapist, our SLP (speech language pathologist), a special educator and others as we thought what kind of an environment would help children with autism as they navigated their way through middle school," Buck said. The room is equipped with bean bag chairs, a space students can feel alone, and soft lighting that does not make as loud of a humming sound as traditional lights that is often distracting to children with autism.

"It's a place where kids who cannot cope with, let's say, the locker. When the bell rings and there's 60 kids in your hallway and they're all making noise and trying to open (the lockers), that is overwhelming for kids," Buck said.

The high school has a similar room, although elementary schools do not.

"Facilities are a challenge here. All of our elementary schools, every nook and cranny is crowded with people working in spaces that were never designed to be classrooms or therapy areas. The occupational therapist is on the stage. The speech and language pathologist is in a closet. Four special ed teachers are in one room together," Buck said.

The meeting concluded with the formation of a special committee of board members, staff and parents to follow up on the recommendations that came from the meeting. That committee will report back to the SVSU board in February on progress. While the committee is progress, parents who have been pleading for immediate change were left disappointed. "To me that is unacceptable as a ‘short term' fix," Kennedy wrote in his e-mail to the board.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi