Un­lock po­ten­tial of stu­dents with autism

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP-ED - Paul Wehman Dr. Paul Wehman is di­rec­tor of the VCU Autism Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence, and may be con­tacted at [email protected]

Re­cently the Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch pub­lished an edi­to­rial on the chal­lenge of fund­ing ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices for stu­dents with autism. This edi­to­rial sparked much con­ver­sa­tion in the ed­u­ca­tional com­mu­nity. While well-mean­ing, it did not fully grasp dra­matic ad­vances in pub­lic school ser­vices over the past decade. Un­for­tu­nately, it also did not ask the right ques­tion: How can we as a so­ci­ety not fund ser­vices that will lead these young peo­ple to be­come pro­duc­tive, em­ployed cit­i­zens in their com­mu­ni­ties?

Over the past decade, we have learned more about how to im­ple­ment in­ter­ven­tions us­ing ap­plied be­hav­ior anal­y­sis in pub­lic schools that help stu­dents strug­gling with be­hav­ioral chal­lenges. These in­ter­ven­tions fre­quently re­place be­hav­iors with con­struc­tive so­cial skills. At Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity’s Autism Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence (VCUACE), we reg­u­larly go into class­rooms across the com­mon­wealth and work di­rectly with teach­ers to in­crease their ca­pac­ity to help stu­dents with autism.

Con­sider Ni­cholas (fic­tional name), a 7-year-old stu­dent with autism. Ni­cholas started the school year with his sec­ond-grade peers. By Oc­to­ber, he be­gan to demon­strate se­ri­ously prob­lem­atic be­hav­iors. The school team, per­plexed by the change, moved him to his own class­room with one teacher just for him. They even con­sid­ered an ex­pen­sive pri­vate school place­ment. In­stead, VCU-ACE staff worked di­rectly with his ed­u­ca­tors to de­velop an in­di­vid­u­al­ized be­hav­ior plan. Within six weeks, he was back in his sec­ond-grade class­room with a be­hav­ior plan that pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for more struc­tured learn­ing, ad­dressed his need for de­vel­op­ment of so­cial skills, and of­fered his teacher strate­gies to help Ni­cholas be­come a mean­ing­ful part of his class­room com­mu­nity.

This type of help al­lows him to stay in his home school with his peers, and, of course, costs much less than a pri­vate place­ment. Stu­dents like Ni­cholas abound with po­ten­tial and his gifts are best real­ized in school with his peers. With a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, his po­ten­tial to be a vi­tal part of his com­mu­nity is max­i­mized.

Ni­cholas is not un­usual; he is one of 236 stu­dents and hun­dreds of teach­ers who re­ceived that kind of help from VCU-ACE last year. In fact, we have been able to help 95 per­cent of stu­dents with autism, like Ni­cholas, stay in their pub­lic schools. We have pro­vided these ser­vices in more than 35 Vir­ginia school dis­tricts.

We have learned through our re­search on the em­ploy­ment of youth with autism that stu­dents who come from in­clu­sive set­tings are bet­ter pre­pared for the work­place. Em­ploy­ers across Vir­ginia re­port that their em­ploy­ees with autism are val­ued con­trib­u­tors to their busi­nesses.

In re­cent re­search, we tested the im­pact of in­clu­sive busi­ness in­tern­ships for high school stu­dents with autism. In this study, 81 per­cent of the in­di­vid­u­als who par­tic­i­pated in the in­tern­ships gained em­ploy­ment in the com­mu­nity. In fact, the re­ten­tion rate of em­ploy­ment for those in­di­vid­u­als was an im­pres­sive 90.6 per­cent 12 months af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school. Also, be­cause they were en­gaged in val­ued ac­tiv­i­ties and around co-work­ers with ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iors, they also showed more ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior.

In­stead of cost be­ing the cen­tral is­sue de­ter­min­ing ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram­ming for stu­dents with autism, it is im­per­a­tive in­stead to ask: How can their fullest po­ten­tial be de­vel­oped? I know how able so many of these stu­dents are be­cause I have seen their trans­for­ma­tions in class­rooms and work­places.

Through our work with school lead­ers, teach­ers, and prin­ci­pals across the com­mon­wealth, we have em­pir­i­cal data show­ing that even those with more chal­leng­ing be­hav­iors re­spond to ap­plied be­hav­ior anal­y­sis de­liv­ered in pub­lic school. In fact, 15 school dis­tricts around Rich­mond have re­cently ini­ti­ated a re­gional pro­gram that uses con­sul­ta­tion from VCUACE to com­bine re­sources and meet the needs of the most chal­lenged stu­dents, al­low­ing them to be ed­u­cated near their home schools.

This new and dra­matic ap­proach al­lows these stu­dents to learn clos­est to their peers while el­e­vat­ing the level of help they can re­ceive near their homes. The stu­dents also have the flex­i­bil­ity to be ed­u­cated with their peers when ap­pro­pri­ate, and are given the op­por­tu­nity to sel­f­reg­u­late out­side the class­room if they be­come dis­rup­tive or if a dif­fer­ent learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment, like a quiet li­brary, bet­ter suits the mo­ment.

Con­sider the lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ni­cholas if he were not able to be ed­u­cated with his peers. He would be less likely to go to col­lege or to work at Wal­greens, VCU Health Sys­tem, Bon Se­cours Health Sys­tem, Do­min­ion En­ergy, Markel, or so many other em­ploy­ers who want these young peo­ple as em­ploy­ees.

We have to ask our­selves: How do we want to spend our tax­payer dol­lars when ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren with autism? I vote for un­leash­ing hu­man po­ten­tial, hap­pi­ness, and the sat­is­fac­tion that comes from go­ing to school, build­ing re­la­tion­ships, and es­tab­lish­ing self-es­teem. We know we can do just that with more en­ergy, in­vest­ment, and em­pow­er­ment of teach­ers and fam­i­lies.


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