Autism affects each child differently. Building a program that focuses on the developmental needs of the individual child while integrating the varying levels of functionality across its design is challenging.
With 10 years of experience in West Orange's school program, Mt. Pleasant Elementary School Principal Michael Schiavo is up to that challenge. Even better, he says the school's program is working.
Mt. Pleasant houses the district’s autistic specific program. When Schiavo started 10 years ago at Mt. Pleasant, there was one preschool class for autistic children. Under his tutelage, the school has grown to house four classes for grades kindergarten through fifth. The individual classes vary by the child’s placement on the autistic spectrum.
Twenty-two students are currently enrolled comprised of 20 boys and two girls. Four head teachers run each classroom – Jill Deerdorff, Kristen Pavone, Ashley Johnston and Joe Postiglione — along with 22 aides providing a one-to-one student aide ratio.
Schiavo cites the growth of the program to "greater awareness and much better identification of the autistic spectrum." He explained each student has a binder detailing their Individual Education Plan, IEP. The plan is a fluid document that can be changed at any time as a child progresses or reassessed as requested by a parent or educator.
In conjunction with the IEP they use applied behavioral analysis (ABA), which in part observes behaviors and discreet trial programs, which help chart and graph progress by a series of questions which increase in difficulty.
Additionally the students receive speech, physical and occupational therapy in accordance with their IEP. Some of those therapies are held in the school’s sensory integration room. "Autistic students are very fascinated with motion and movement," Schiavo said. The room has gym mats and swings and spaces for the students to express themselves through movement.
Schaivo accredits his teachers and aides to helping make the program a success. With the various levels of functionality including in part non-verbal, not toilet trained and difficulties with personal space boundaries it takes a special type of person to work with an autistic child. "You have to have a personal dedication. These are some of the most dedicated and devoted teachers I have ever worked with," he said.
The program has been so successful Schiavo told Patch, "other districts come in and observe our program." When a child’s own district cannot provide the services necessary for them they can be required to attend our program. This becomes revenue generating for West Orange as out-of-district students pay tuition.
Mr. and Mrs. Greene’s son William attends the autistic program. When William was three years old, his lack of speech, odd habits and ticks were indicators he might be autistic. Now eight years old and in third grade, William’s progress is measured in verbal and social skills and participating in general education classes with his aide. "The teachers and staff take it personally. They have so much invested," Mrs. Greene said.
For the Greenes, success is also measured socially. As a kindergartener, Mrs. Greene described her son as "quiet and to himself. He hardly spoke and didn’t make eye contact." Now she says he's started to "blend in" socially. Mr. Greene added, "I picked William up from school to find him laughing and playing with his peers lounging in the center of the gym. That is simply amazing."
Renay Evans' 9 year old son Gabriel is also in the program. Gabriel is in Kristen Pavone’s class. Evans said, "I feel the love when I walk in that class." A teacher herself, Evans supports working with autistic diagnosed children as early as possible. "They won’t always be children. We want to help make them independent adults," she said.
The Greenes and Evans felt Schiavo’s dedication and support are the backbone of the program. "He truly cares," Evans said. Mrs. Greene concurred saying, "He is amazing. We know William is going to a bunch of people who care about him and move him forward."
Up next, Schiavo is looking into grants to furnish each of his students with an in-school ipad. "The kids are very visual learners and there are many applications that correspond and align with our curriculum," he said, adding, "we can also download a much clearer accounting system. It would be a wonderful addition."
Schiavo describes the program as one of his gems. "I take a big responsibility here and see it as an amazing program," he said.
Autism, part of a group of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. The disorder is characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social abilities, and also by repetitive behaviors. For more information, visit www.autismspeaks.org
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