According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 68 children is identified with autism spectrum disorder, a group of developmental disabilities characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication.
Ever mindful and committed to the mission of forming children in mind, body and spirit, the Diocesan Department for Catholic Schools has assembled an Autism Awareness Team of teachers and principals trained and prepared to assist their peers in the education of students who have been diagnosed on the spectrum.
“A student’s diagnosis doesn’t mean that we change the academic rigor. Rather, we find ways to get the student to where he or she needs to be in order to succeed,” said Angela Heinick, Chairperson of the Instructional Support Committee for the Diocese and Director of Pupil Services at Trinity High School in Camp Hill.
She has been engaged in instructional support for 18 years.
“In this role, I want to know, ‘Are we educating students with autism the way we should be? Am I advising teachers correctly? How do we educate our teachers to be prepared for students on the spectrum?’ In a Catholic school, we are charged to teach all children,” she said.
In an effort to educate its teachers about autism, the diocese partnered several years ago with Neumann University in Aston, Pa., to provide online training for qualified teachers to receive an Autism Spectrum Disorder endorsement.
The Instructional Support program in diocesan schools enables the schools to serve a broad range of children; the training provides educators with additional tools to teach students of all ages who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
A group of 13 teachers and principals graduated from the two-year program last year, and ten are enrolled in the current session. The 12-credit program focuses on assessment and research-based strategies with an emphasis on skill development and behavioral modifications for students.
Mrs. Heinick is one of the instructors for the Neumann online endorsement program.
With 13 teachers who have earned the endorsement and a second cohort currently in session, the group is now offering itself as a resource for individual teachers and schools with the formation of the Autism Awareness Team.
The team can provide in-service workshops, feedback following classroom observations, and help in fostering relationships between parents and schools for the students’ success.
Mrs. Heinick offered several examples of triggers that might be a hindrance for a student with autism, and suggestions for educators to help avoid them.
One is anxiety. Perhaps a student is unable to offer a report in front of the entire class because of anxiety in not knowing when it will be their turn. Or perhaps their body is rigid due to stress. A teacher, then, might let the student know exactly when they’ll be called upon, or allow them to present the report on their own after class.
Dual meanings of words and phrases can also be a challenge for a student with autism. If a teacher says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” the student might expect to see animals falling from the sky. Instead, educators should be mindful of using concrete words.
Another sign of autism is perseveration, also called “stimming,” the repetition of a word, phrase or gesture that persists well beyond the stimulus that caused it. For example, a student might not be able to stop thinking about a computer program or app he or she was using in the previous class period, and might therefore say words or express gestures about it during their current class. For such situations, a study hall or extended break between classes might help the student unwind.
Peer to Peer Assistance
Jennifer Kukay, a sixth-grade teacher at St. Patrick School in Carlisle, is a member of the first team to have received training in the autism program.
She was motivated by personal experiences: an older sister was diagnosed with autism as an adult after struggling her entire life, and a nephew was diagnosed at age three.
“I use information gained in the program on a daily basis,” she said. “The strategies and skills we learned are beneficial to all students across grades.”
Since undergoing the training, Mrs. Kukay has presented a summary course to the faculty at St. Patrick School on the signs of autism, and strategies to take when faced with a challenging situation. She has also been a third-party observer for teachers seeking guidance with a student.
Dagny Heidig is one of two teachers at St. Leo the Great School in Rohrerstown – the other is Michele Damiano – who are in the current training program. Like many of her peers in the group, she joined because of a personal connection: her nephew was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was three years old.
“The autism spectrum is now so wide and covers such a multitude of different diagnoses; as teachers, we see more children who might not necessarily be officially diagnosed, but the signs are still there,” said Mrs. Heidig, a third-grade teacher.
“I feel that the benefits from being a part of this cohort will allow me to be more aware of the needs that my students with autism might have. At times, I have found that an accommodation for the child with autism has actually helped the entire class,” she observed.
The Autism Awareness Team serves as a resource that can offer strategies to teachers at all grade levels.
“What we bring is support for the teachers. They are dedicated, and they will find a way to give students what they need to achieve,” Mrs. Heinick remarked. “They value every child sitting in front of them in the classroom.”
“Knowledge and awareness of autism are our best tools so that teachers are best able to educate every one of our students – each a unique and beloved child of God,” said Mrs. Kukay. “The most important lesson that I share with my colleagues is autism does not define the child, so don’t define the child by autism. Love the child and they will succeed!”
(For more information about the Autism Awareness Team and how they can support you school or classroom, contact Angela Heinick at email@example.com.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness