- Posted September 12, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Teachers: Why do you teach?
Easter Seals School Offers Hope for Families
For 10-year old Eli McKinley, he dreaded it. Within hours of being in school, he would often act out his frustrations and scream, kick or even bite himself and others. Not knowing how to deal with his behavior, the teachers would eventually call his mother, Kim. Take Eli home, they would say. For Eli, who has Asperger’s and attention deficit hyper activity disorder (ADHD), it was clear that he could not learn in a public school setting.
Asperger syndrome is one of a group of disorders called autism spectrum, which affects brain and social development. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks, a national nonprofit organization.
For many families, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gave their children an opportunity to be educated in a classroom with typical developing students. The practice, which is called mainstreaming, is thought to help students with disabilities learn in a less restrictive environment and build their social skills. For typical students, the hope is to foster understanding and sensitivity to children with a disability. But that often doesn’t happen as more stories of bullying in schools surface.
The public school system applies a group curriculum system. The classroom model of 15-20 students may work for most children, but not for all students with special needs or those with moderate to severe autism.
Every child with autism has different needs, according to Jacquelyn Ruch, School Administrator for Easter Seals Autism Therapeutic School in Rockford, Ill. Some also may have more than one health disorder, which makes learning even more challenging. While most public school systems have special education programs in place, unfortunately, it’s not specialized for children who have difficulty with mainstreaming. This is one of the reasons why Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago has established three therapeutic schools — to provide what the public schools could not accomplish.
The Rockford school is one of three established by the Easter Seals of Metropolitan Chicago. Opened nearly five years ago, the school serves 23 rural communities surrounding Rockford. Today, the school is filled to capacity and is helping students like Eli learn new skills. The other two Autism Therapeutic Schools are in Chicago and Tinley Park, Ill. Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago provides educational and therapeutic services and programs to approximately 275 children diagnosed with Autism within their three schools.
Easter Seals Autism Therapeutic School differs in multiple ways from a public school setting. First, its student to staff ratio is unmatched with a low teacher/student ratio. Many students have a one to one aide providing more individualized attention and instruction to the students who have more challenging behaviors.
“Our students have many, many needs,” said Ruch. “They not only need academic help, but they also need life skills, communication skills, and even skills for learning how to have fun. Education for children with autism is a much bigger package than just looking at the academic.”
Ruch says every child who enrolls in an Easter Seals school receives an individualized education plan. The plan outlines the specific goals for each student based on his or her learning needs.
The individualized education plan also includes information about behaviors that may affect a child’s ability to learn. For example, when Eli could not communicate his fears or concerns effectively, he would act out physically. His education plan includes recommendations for handling maladaptive behaviors.
For other students, their individualized plan may include unique ways to handle their heightened sensory systems.
“Some of our students really like feet or toenails,” said Ruch. “Some can’t handle the smell of perfumes or body lotion, and then for others, light or sound can be physically painful. We adapt the environment as best as we can to help the child focus and learn, for example giving students head phones to block noise or changing from sandals to closed toe shoes. If we can take those things out of the equation, students can better focus on the learning.”
The results for students have been more than significant.
“Eli is much calmer and rarely acts out,” said McKinley. “He’s built some friendships and established strong relationships with the teachers. He’s now learning how to read and write, which he had not been able to do before. He’s happier.”
According to Kim McKinley the teachers at the Easter Seals are also different from other schools. “I’ve toured 3 different schools. I knew in my heart this is the school for Eli,” recalled McKinley. “All the teachers seem to love their job. They’re patient, caring and kind. You can see that they are not here every day to just get a paycheck. They really are great with the students.”
In fact, their success and the growing need for schools like Easter Seals have led to plans to build a Campus of Care. The Campus will house a larger school to accommodate more students, a training facility that can be used to educate community members about autism, and housing for autistic adults. The school will be built to meet the environmental and learning needs of children with autism. The school will be built with the same features that the Easter Seals Chicago School provides for their children attending the school. Once built, the Campus of Care positions the Easter Seals as playing a vital role in the surrounding communities.
“We see ourselves as advocates for the students,” notes Ruch. “Meeting the whole needs of students with moderate-to-severe autism requires an organization that not only provides for the educational needs of students, but also for the needs of the families and communities in which they live.”
FINDING THE RIGHT SCHOOL
Currently, one out of every 88 children will be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Many experts believe that number may continue to rise. While the IDEA act has opened many opportunities for families, some schools may not have the resources to help students with moderate to severe disabilities.
To find out if the public school setting is the right setting for a child with disabilities, both McKinley and Ruch recommend the following:
• Become an expert on your child. How does the child behave? Does he or she look forward to school or act out and become upset? Talk with the teachers and school administrators about your child’s behavior in school. Plan surprise visits and listen in without disrupting class activities.
• Find an advocate. Reach out to organizations like the local Easter Seals or Autism Speaks to help you navigate through the confusion and find local services.
• Don’t give up. Unfortunately, no one knows how long it will take for a child with autism will learn new skills. Be patient. Be heroic.