Why are those kids screaming in the hallways? Why aren’t they punished when they hit the teacher? It was the fifth year that we had students with autism in the Delaware Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri and no one had explained the disability to the regular grade students. Some of the younger students were frightened. The regular classroom teachers were unsure how to explain the behaviors of these strange children to their students. The teachers themselves wondered at our intensive staffing when they managed over 30 students single handedly. It was time for some explanation, education and public relations.
I visited the upper grade classrooms and talked to them about autism, my multihandicapped class and my son who has autism. Then the students took part in a sensory overload exercise that brought the experience of autism home to them in a very personal way. They wrote about their experience and began showing more interest in those "strange kids down the hall".
I hoped to bank on this enthusiasm to create a peer tutor program the following year. However, as I threw myself into other projects, peer integration took a back burner. Our structured program of individualized functional academic, vocational, domestic and self-care jobs needed constant refinement. New jobs had to be constructed to further develop their skills and work behaviors. In addition to development of pragmatic language, our program was enriched by the use of music, art and dramatics. We were developing the use of sign and augmentative communication devices as well as verbal language. Our Community Based Activity program had expanded to include real work activities and the use of appropriate behaviors at shopping, leisure, travel and service sites. Our swimming program was successful in developing confidence, skills and safety awareness in water environments.
Daily access to adaptive devices and software allowed even the least able to function on the computer. We shopped at the grocery store and did a cooking project once a week. Therapy dogs visited my children every week. Those who were frightened of animals learned to be more comfortable. Those who were overly aggressive were shown how to touch appropriately. The students were showing growth in social skills and appropriate play behaviors from our regular work on those areas. By mid-year, I could put peer integration off no longer. I placed a sign in the teachers' lounge:
"Would any of your students like to come and visit our room at recess time? It doesn’t have to be your best students."
Pat Arnold, fifth grade teacher at Delaware School, came up with a list of volunteers and assigned two of her fifth graders to each of my recesses. So began a series of wonderful experiences for all involved. Some of the visiting fifth graders were intuitively excellent at relating to my children. Two delightful boys were so good with my kids that I thought they were Pat’s star students. She laughed at that. It was the work in my classroom that gave them the opportunity to shine. Then there were the pretty, popular, well-dressed girls. We watched astonished as they hugged one of my loving but drool-sopped students. We took pictures of the child who jumped and flapped at every recess, sitting with a boy his age playing a game!
Some of the visiting students chose to play by themselves, keeping a wary eye on my kids. I never forced them to get "involved". Interesting toys and games kept them coming back. They did a great job of being normal "play models". After they left, my students would get out the games the others had played and try to act just like those kids. Most people with autism don’t learn to play naturally. Their best teachers have been their own age peers.
There have been other benefits to this “reverse mainstreaming”. These fifth graders say 'Hi' to my kids in the hall. They come to play with my kids on the playground at their own recess time. They ask to eat lunch with my students. Now there is a waiting list of other fifth grade students who want to come to our room if a regular visitor is absent. Pat stopped me in the hall to tell me about one of her student’s visits to the mall with a friend. The friend saw someone with a disability and was making fun of that person. The Delaware school girl stopped her. "Don’t make fun of them!" she said. "They visit our classroom and we visit theirs. They are people just like us."
The fifth grade teacher and I stood in the hall with our arms around each other crying. Our little effort has changed the children in my class, her class, their friends and their families. There is a lot of excellent information available on the use of peer integration for children with autism. Pamela Wolfburg’s work on Integrated Play Groups is interesting and informative. I hope to incorporate some of these suggestions. However, we need to remember that it is not our best laid plans that make this work. The magic is in the children and bringing them together.
SA Autism Newsletter