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Remote Education: Immersion is Thriving!

Covid-19 can’t stop immersion!

Academic and Social Immersion is a successful model for teaching children with autism spectrum disorder and their neurotypical peers. We have the hard data that shows academic growth, behavioral improvements, and increased social engagement. But what happens when you remove the structure of a supportive school environment and the immediate support of teachers? What does a school disruption (like we have never seen before) mean for our students in an immersion model? Does the whole thing fall apart?

No. 

It absolutely does not fall apart. Immersion is thriving. 

How do I know? I listen to the parents, teachers, and students themselves. I can hear in the stories coming out of this remote learning environment that Academic and Social Immersion has worked its way into the hearts and minds of our community: teachers, parents, and most importantly children. Let me share a few of these stories with you. 

Many of our teachers have been hosting class via the ZOOM teleconferecing website. What thrills and amazes them is how many times the class “hijacks” the session to chat and be social. They miss each other and want to be together. If this was simply a case of a friend missing a friend, they could Facetime or something more private at home. What we are seeing time and again is the WHOLE class wanting to stay in touch and connected. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

Teachers have been trying to reach out and meet the needs of all students. Another student with ASD asked if the group could meet for lunch on ZOOM to just hang out. Their needs are less about help with a math problem or editing a paper and more about being connected with their group. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

A mother of a second grade peer commented that most of the second grade is hanging out virtually on the Messenger app. One student needs his mom to be his voice to help him interact. Her daughter and the rest of the class are “not bothered by this because they want him included. They are already oriented to the different ways people communicate.” The mother added, “they include everyone because the important thing is that they can see and hear one another–perhaps not in person, but in a familiar way. Everyone is important to the group.” THIS IS IMMERSION

Amy, the mom of one of our kindergarten students with ASD, shared the following: “Calin usually only acknowledges friends if they play his games on his terms, which is always physical play (chasing/running/wrestling). Otherwise he has no interest in what friends are doing.  He doesn’t seem to mind this, resulting in ‘no real friends’ at all, but it breaks my heart. Will there be a day he is sad that he has no friends? Will he ever ask for a play date or sleepover? Will he have a best friend like I did growing up? Is he liked? Do kids want to play him or are they annoyed by him? All these questions truly break my heart when I consider the possible answers.”  These feelings are very common among the parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. In wanting the best for our children, we want them to have the kinds of friendships and social experiences that we had and cherish. 

Recently, one of Calin’s classmates reached out to Calin via Facebook Messenger Kids, which many students are using to stay connected.  Amy continues, “Eleanor has called Calin several times prior and I would ask him if he would like to talk to her and he would say “no thanks, I’m fine” and run away.  But she kept calling, so I finally told him he HAD to talk to her. He begrudgingly sat down. They both said hello to each other with me prompting Calin to use her name.   Eleanor didn’t skip a beat and immediately started playing with filters on the messenger app that turn your face into something else like a cat/tiger/hamburger/etc.  He just laughed hysterically each time she changed her face and Eleanor would say “isn’t that funny, Calin?!” He would just laugh and laugh and ask her verbally for more. 

Then she asked him to play a game with her and proceeded to start the game. I was a nervous wreck, thinking “He’s never done this before. Will he understand and be able to participate? Will she get frustrated if he doesn’t want to play and hang up? Will he be mean and run away? Will she say to me, “why won’t he talk to me?” Will this end like similar situations with the kids we see at playgrounds?”  They went back and forth doing this with almost no prompting from me to wait his turn. (At the end of the game)… she finally selected the snake and lost. At first he teased her with that ‘nana nana boo boo’ that we all know. Nervously, I asked him to be nice and tell her good game, so he quickly shouted “good game!!” With a smile on her face, Eleanor immediately began another game with him. This time they both had faces like fish and had to use their mouths to catch as many fish as they could.  Again he interacted successfully the entire time. There were moments throughout that he would say “all done, no more talk” and push the phone in my direction. I would start to say something about politely saying goodbye to his friend, but Eleanor would just switch it up and catch his eye with a new game or funny face, and he would be sucked right back in laughing and playing with her again. Eventually he said he was done and actually got up and walked away, so I had him say goodbye and I thanked Eleanor and we hung up. I was almost in tears. ”  

Eleanor showed me that Calin IS liked and his friends DO want to play with him and they will gladly play the way that they know Calin can be successful in order to spend some time with him. Truly made heart so happy and grateful for our school community. 

 Calin is not the only one to benefit from this interaction. The love, patience, and understanding shown by Eleanor is a gift to Calin, but also a gift to herself. She has learned to accept and love people and to meet people where they are. Most importantly, she is being a good friend. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

These trying times may be filled with separations. They may be affecting how we learn and how we work and even how we spend time together. However, the power of being part of a social group and the drive to include everyone in your community because everyone is important is going strong in our children. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

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Helpful Hints for Home #1

Working with children with autism spectrum disorder while at home

Thanks a lot, COVID-19!

Apparently the way to get our blog back up and running is to lock everyone in their homes!  Just kidding! Take care of yourselves: wash your hands, practice social distancing, and stay connected with those you love to help take care of each other. 

We at Autism Immersed have been up to some exciting changes in our products and services, but this COVID-19 health emergency has revealed some interesting and encouraging truths about our teachers and our students. In the challenges we are all facing and the separations we are enduring, we also are learning just how powerful the Academic and Social Immersion Model is, not only in educating children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their neurotypical peers, but also in building a community of teachers, therapists, children, and families. With that in mind, this blog series (Helpful HInts for Home) will address a few different aspects of schooling from home as well as offer some tips to those of you working as well. Today, we would like to offer some general tips for schooling from home for our students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Please don’t think you need to do everything on this list at once–that would be overwhelming. Pick an area that you think would enhance Distance Learning for your and for your child and start there. As always, your Oakstone Academy teachers are ready to support you if you need help or more ideas. Don’t be afriad to reach out!

Parents are by far the experts on their children, and this holds true for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. That being said, those of us who teach children with autism spectrum disorders have a collection of best practices based on our experience successfully educating our students. While home will never be school (and should not be expected to be), using some of these tried and true strategies at home could make this interruption to our school routine less disruptive to your child’s education and keep things happier at home. 

#1: Structure

One tried and true practice in teaching students on the autism spectrum is to have a consistent structure available. Many behaviors that interfere with learning are a sign of anxiety or confusion with what is going on. In the classroom, structure is offered with schedules and routines. This same idea of structure can carry over to the home, though in a more manageable way for families. Some tips on adding structure and routine to your home environment include

  • Designate a spot at home for learning. This might be a desk or a dining room table. It should be a spot that has fewer distractions (television, toys). The mom who set up the work stations above knew her kids would need some space between them to accomplish their work. You can also have a schedule or daily rotation for use of preferred work areas/equipment.
  • Use a list to help track what tasks need to be done. This list can be written on paper or a dry erase board, drawn on notecards, or created online. Many of our Intervention Specialists are helping parents customize a to-do list, like the ones pictured here. Visuals are much more powerful than verbal instructions for children with ASD, as they are easier for them to process and takes away ambiguity. 
  • A weekly calendar could also help your child. They are used to certain tasks on certain days, with some “home days”. Marking off a calendar to show when they have school work and when they don’t can help children with ASD cope with the many changes this pandemic has brought into our lives. 
  • Using a Social Immersion Plan (SIP) about COVID-19 and the changes it has brought can help explain changes and reassure students, making a big difference in attitudes and anxiety. 
  • Set times to work on tasks. If work is done early, great! If work is not done, STOP ANYWAY. You can always have 1 item on your to-do list as “catch up time” to provide a time for your child to finish anything that was dragging too long. 
  • Don’t end your structure with just the tasks that are coming home from school to complete. Extend this to things like screen time, outdoor time, physical activity, and creative time. If you have 1 hour of structure and then 12 hours of a free for all, the structure will feel more difficult for your child. 
  • Give kids some choices about activities they would like to tackle first, giving them some degree of control over tasks and making them feel part of the structure of the day. 

#2 Expectations

High expectations are key to the success of children with autism spectrum disorder in the immersion classroom. Children rise to our belief in them. If you as the parent expect that this school at home is going to be a disaster, it probably will be. If you expect that it will be hard, but your child CAN do it, it probably will be as well. Ask your child to share some of the rules he or she follows at school and then use those as a basis to make some expectations for school time at home. 

  • Choose 3-5 general expectations to include. These could relate to physical behaviors, work completion, or attitudes. 
  • Phrase them in both the positive and negative forms for clarity. For example, “Use kind hands and words. NO fighting” could be one. “Try your best: don’t give up!” could be another.
  • Add a visual representation for each, whether it is a sketch, a piece of clip art, or even a drawing made by your child. 
  • Keep expectations realistic for the age of your child. Reach out to teachers or online resources to get some ideas for the amount of time or work your child should be able to complete. 
  • Make school an expectation of the day. While younger children may not have the same level of school work as the first grader or middle schooler, be sure the environment at home is consistent with learning. Having a younger sibling work on crafts, workbooks, or learning-oriented computer games will keep everyone in the family focused on learning.

#3 Accountability

Accountability goes hand in hand with high expectations for all children, but especially for children with ASD.  When most people hear the word “consequence,” they assume negative consequences. However, a consequence is simply something that results from an action. Consequences can be positive or negative. Consequences are what hold us accountable for our actions. If we provide structure and high expectations for our learners, we also have to follow through on those expectations. A few tips on accountability:

  • Don’t make threats or promises that you are unwilling or unable to follow through on. You aren’t going to throw away your television or cancel summer, so don’t threaten that. 
  • Set up small manageable positive consequences for finishing work. One parent is currently giving one point each for a wide variety of tasks, from schoolwork to household help to physical activity. These points can be cashed in for small treats (like dessert or extra TV) or saved over the week for a larger reward ($10-15 to spend on art supplies or a game on Amazon after a larger amount of points over the course of the week). Another family is building in time to video chat with friends as tasks get completed. 
  • Clear and consistent consequences take the personal out of finishing tasks. If a student complies, they get the positive consequences. If they don’t, they miss out on something they like. It’s not personal. It’s just the plan. 
  • Can we hear it for VISUALS again?? You don’t have to be an artist or graphic designer to create a quick chart with 3 boxes to represent tasks to be done and a 4th box to represent the item your child is working for. 

#4 Balance

Our students with ASD thrive in classrooms that offer varied and authentic learning experiences, balanced with social skills integration and social-emotional learning. “School from home” is not expected to be school. It is not even home school. It is its own thing that we are all learning how to do together. Your child is not going to be able to fill an 8 hour school day with learning tasks at home. That doesn’t mean it is wise or helpful to spend the balance of their time playing video games or watching Youtube videos. Many teachers plan their class time in thirds: a lesson for a third of the time, guided practice for a third, then independent practice for the final third. Consider adding a similar balance to home tasks: one third each of school work, relaxation time, and activities in the middle like physical fitness, art, and stories. Students have a wide range of types of assignments and activities at school that helps add variety. Some ways to add balance to your days ahead include

  • Make a list with your child of things they want to do. Right now the internet is full of fun ideas for those of us sheltering in place. This list could be checked off as children do different types of activities that they enjoy and try new things as well. 
  • Balance YouTube videos your kids enjoy with some that have educational merit. Museums, zoos, parks, and other educational resource centers have been sharing many virtual field trips online. 
  • Understand your child’s tolerance for boredom. Some students with ASD need their time fully scheduled to help them refrain from self-stimulatory behaviors (“stimming”), while others can fill time with toys, books, or games. 
  • Save technology time for the times it is helpful to you as a parent. Need to make a conference call for work? Ipad time! Need to bathe another child or work on dinner? Netflix. 
  • Using color coding or a visual schedule on a day can help your child see how much screen time is enough or too much. One easy way to do this is to divide a paper plate in 12 sections for the hours 8am-8pm. Have your child color sections according to a code (red for screen time, green for school work, yellow for playtime, etc.) so they can see how they are spending their time. They can do this with you before they start their day as a plan or as they do things throughout the day as a tracker. 

#5 Joy

We teachers love spending our time with your students. For us, this is a hard time becuase we miss your children and the joy that comes with seeing them understand something new or show off a developing skill. We also understand that this new normal is stressful for you and for them. Find ways to add joy and fun. Try to acknowledge and normalize the stress of this time. Find ways to be joyful and make memories. 

  • Encourage your child to help you make a “school at home”. What aspects of their school day and environment do they enjoy and want to replicate? How can work also mimic play?
  • Praise your child frequently. Remind them that this is new and hard and that you really just want their best effort. When praising, be concrete and specific. For example, “I love how you concentrated and finished your math worksheet.” is much more powerful than “Good job on math!” It pairs the praise with the action, which hopefully leads them to want to do well again. 
  • Have each family member name a good thing from your day. You could write this on a long list or add them to a jar as a record of the special moments this change brings. 
  • Enjoy this time of transition. Though this time is different and often stressful, it does allow us to pause and spend time with our families. 
  • Create memories such as making a dessert or afternoon snack that the family can enjoy.
  • Remember that this too shall pass and your kids will be back with their teachers soon! We can’t wait!

REMEMBER, don’t try to tackle everything here at once. Choose an idea or two to add to your time at home and see if it helps you. We are here to help you tackle whatever you need!

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Prompting students with autism, in and out of the classroom

Autism Immersed Podcast, Season 2, episode 2

On the 2nd episode of our 2nd season, Laura Davis enlightens us on the use of Speech & Language therapies in Socially Immersed classrooms, the importance of soft skills on day to day life, and how AAC devices and PECs should be treated as the student’s actual voice.

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INTERTWINED: How Therapies Work in an Academic and Social Immersion Model

Oakstone Academy and The Children’s Center for Developmental Enrichment (CCDE) offers a service delivery model that is unique in this inclusive school designed for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their peers.  Speech and Occupational Therapies are offered as classroom-based (push-in) and direct/private (pull-out). These types of service delivery models have been in existence in the schools, and though no single model is appropriate for all students, the ultimate goal is ensuring that the student’s needs are met in a variety of settings.   Service delivery models in the schools should be dynamic and fluid, allowing the Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) to support the student by providing effective intervention in order to generalize skills.

Classroom-based service delivery allows the SLP to perform a variety of roles including working with the student individually, circulating around the room, or with small groups during an activity.  The natural environment provides an authentic setting tailored to the student’s needs. The classroom SLP can also provide “consultation” to the teachers in the use of strategies in the context of reading, writing, and speaking activities.  At Oakstone, the classroom SLP develops and writes measurable goals for the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  He/She may also administer testing to assess the student’s performance and/or skills for the Evaluation Team Report (ETR) to determine the student’s eligibility for special education services.  The SLP and classroom teacher work closely with the team (i.e., Occupational Therapist, Psych Services, administration) to create social narratives and visual supports and how to frame instruction for children with language impairments and provide positive behavioral support.  This partnership is critical to the classroom teacher and SLP as the student’s progress and changing needs evolve throughout the school year.

Direct/Private therapy or pull-out service delivery is provided in a separate room, which allows for individualized time with the student.  This type of intervention removes the child from the classroom curriculum for a specific amount of time.  Direct therapies are used for testing or screening; it may also be beneficial if the student has challenging behaviors and require a more restricted or quiet environment for learning or acquisition of skills.  SLP’s in this capacity determine each student’s goals and create treatment plans to target these goal areas. Often, therapists work closely with families by developing specific functional goals such as skills for daily living, self-help skills, or a visual schedule for routines at home.  While the classroom-based SLP provide support and strategies in the classroom, direct/private SLPs provide structured opportunities for increasing a particular skill or for teaching new behaviors. With fewer or less distractions, SLPs may take advantage of the space to create conversations and practice functional activities while working on specific language skills.  Direct/private therapy is ideal for practice drills and 1:1 instruction not necessarily possible in classroom-based services. While schools around the nation offer both direct and classroom-based therapies, the resources to implement pull-out therapy are becoming limited due to high SLP caseload and workload. As a result, students who need the individualized and focused therapy receive less therapy time.  Fortunately, Oakstone is able to provide and implement a combination of these models and the resources to sustain both therapies. Direct/Private therapy also allows for flexibility and creativity in creating small groups before/after school and during the school day (typically, at recess or lunch time). These groups are short, practical, and target specific goals for generalization. The benefit of direct/private therapy gives the parents or caregivers convenience in having the therapy before/after school or during the school day instead of traveling to another facility or private clinic for similar services.  Although some students receive additional therapies, this convenience is an attractive benefit to many families at Oakstone.

Collaboration, by definition, refers to working together to create a shared goal.  This unique alliance that happens between direct/private (pull-out) and classroom based (push-in) therapy not only benefits the student but ensures that his/her needs are met.  Combining these service delivery modes allows for a closer look on the educational relevance of Speech-Language services and the efficacy of treatment services in both the therapy room and the classroom.  Both capacities allow for expanded roles to address the needs of the student while affecting the student’s educational performance. Oakstone offers both types of therapies by fulfilling various roles to adopt a more comprehensive picture of speech services.  The weaving together of knowledge, expertise, experience, and passion of the SLPs and OTs at Oakstone can add power to the educational growth of the each student.

References

https://www.asha.org/slp/schools/school-based-service-delivery-in-speech-language-pathology/

https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/The-21st-Century-Speech-Language-Pathologist-and-Integrated-Services-in-Classrooms

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396941516680369

https://www.asha.org/NJC/Types-of-Services/

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Immersed in theatre

Immersing students with autism spectrum disorder means having inclusive extracurricular opportunities.

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,”

-from As You Like It by WIlliam Shakespeare

When William Shakespeare wrote these words, he was commenting on the roles we play in our daily lives and the drama that surrounds us. For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, theatre, whether on stage or behind the scenes, can be a powerful tool for membership in a community. Participating in a play not only develops a sense of confidence, competence, and self worth, but also can help students with ASD to feel that they belong and even can improve their interpersonal skills beyond the stage. Success comes from developing competence and earning a place in the group.

Kara Zimmerman helps a high school student prepare for his role in the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Kara Zimmerman, a professional actor, currently teaches theatre and music at Oakstone Academy in the school’s Academic and Social Immersion Model. She was intrigued to have students of all abilities try out for theatre, as she was aware of many studies that show how well students with ASD do in the arts. However, she commented that it “blows my mind to see kids going far beyond what they are supposed to do”. Kara runs the theater program at Oakstone just as the rest of the school is run. Students with ASD are considered full members of the community and try out for theatre with their classmates, earning their roles. She does not cast per diagnosis, but by role, choosing the student who is best suited for the part. “Diagnosis doesn’t matter,” Kara commented, “I forget we are in an immersion setting because all the kids are just there to put on a great show.” As she has been more involved with casting and directing shows at Oakstone over the past few years, Kara has seen the benefits of theatre for her students with ASD. “Theatre fosters support and understanding. It teachers about emotion and empathy….it really helps connect the dots between emotions and actions.” Kara also commented that she sees her cast and crew without diagnoses benefit as well, as the team approach and supportive environment of theatre really reinforce the role of peer models and the idea that everyone is learning from one another.

Grant Carpenter oversees the backstage and technical crew of the Oakstone theatre department. As a lifelong theatre participant, Grant enjoys facilitating the camaraderie of theatre. “Theatre requires teamwork from every single person,” Grant added, “Any part can–and does–make a scene.” This message is reiterated in how he runs crew, focusing on each individual’s ability to help in a particular area as they prepare a vision for the staging of the show. “Some students are going to be better with detail work, while others are really fast and efficient spreading paint. We need people to work on the backdrop, the props, the costumes, the tech.  All those abilities are needed as we work towards one cohesive presentation.”

Mr. Grant coaching students as they build sets

Both Kara and Grant commented about the idea of watching students exceed expectations that society sets for them because of their diagnosis. “Parents will tell me,” Kara shared, “about being told their child will never talk or never have friends. Then, you see them on stage and it blows my mind to watch them going beyond what they were supposed to do.” Grant is constantly amazed to see kids “who don’t talk much outside of theatre get up on stage and drop an awesome monologue.” Kara may have said it best, when reflecting about the impact theatre has on her students: “I cry every time we do a show. Every time.”

Several members of the recent middle school play at Oakstone and their parents also talked about the impact that being a part of the theatre had on them. Because all three students have ASD, they will be referred to by pseudonyms: Alex, Betsy, and Diane. Alex and Betsy both had roles onstage, while Diane was a second year member of the crew.

Alex shared that he opted to do theatre to be with his friends. “I felt excited because I got to be with my friends. It feels good to go to school and be in plays and have friends.” He commented, “people with autism should try doing plays, so they aren’t left out.”  Betsy also felt students with ASD should participate in plays, commenting, “Even if you can’t talk, you can act it out. You can be in the group.” Both actors and Diane enjoyed being part of a group or team. Diane added, “I know a lot more students now. It helps give me social practice to be in theatr.e It also makes school more fun and positive. Theatre is the most fun thing I’ve joined.” The idea of being a member of a group and working towards a common goal is crucial for students with ASD, and theatre gives them first hand experience with that.

Alex commented that he “didn’t feel nervous because I was prepared. Sometimes people get stage fright. I didn’t but some people did. I was kind to people who were nervous.” Alex had the opportunity to coach and support his peers, both with and without ASD, allowing him to be a leader.  Betsy, on the other hand, did feel a little nervous about remembering her lines, but was reassured by Kara’s direction. “Acting is reacting, that’s what Ms. Kara told us,” Betsy commented. “That means just pay attention and try your best.” Diane is not as interested in being on stage, but plans on continuing theatre in high school as well. “I like crew, not being seen, hiding, but having fun. It is better for my insecurities, but I still am participating in something.” Diane felt like participating in crew made some of her social anxiety less noticeable, as she was working with a team of students, with and without ASD, who all prefer to be behind the scenes. “Crew is still a lot of fun and you all help each other. We joke around  and even taught some kids about making jokes so they could laugh along with us.”

Diane’s mother has seen her self-worth grow since she began participating in theatre. “She finds real pride in being in crew. It builds on her interest in the arts, uses her talent. She is always excited to show me her work.” She has also seen Diane come out of her shell and be more willing to take risks related to social activities and feel the payoff. “Theatre is a place that she feels she fits in. (Diane) is excited to show others that crew is not a consolation prize; it’s just as fulfilling as being on stage.” Alex’s mom has also seen theatre as a vehicle to help Alex build his confidence. “Theatre gives him full membership in the group, not charity inclusion. He earned it.” For Alex, theatre is a place to put his phenomenal memory to use, and a place to allow others to see his personality and humor, which his mom feels he keeps hidden 95% of the time. “His past teachers saw him at the show and were wowed that he was so funny and brave onstage.” She elaborated, “This is a kid who at age 3 had maybe 10 words he spoke. At age 9, he whisper-talked in every class. Now, he is on stage, projecting, being funny!”

The most rewarding part of offering immersive experiences in theatre is seeing the ways it impacts students’ confidence and skills in other areas. Parents and staff alike see this happen time and again among students with ASD who participate in theatre. “Theatre was a spark for (Alex). He wants to go see the high school play now. He is doing more social planning–asking kids if they are participating in other activities and clubs. He is leaving our family in social situations to go be silly with friends. He makes friends outside of his classroom social group. He makes comments about what others are doing and wanting to do those things too–benefitting from positive peer pressure.” Betsy made the connection between studying her lines and studying her school work: “Learning lines makes you feel better at knowing what to do. It’s the same as studying for class.” Diane added, “theatre keeps you flexible. Things will go wrong along the way. You have to go with it, not lose it.”

In Academic and Social Immersion, participating in extracurriculars has power because participation is earned. No one is there as a mascot or to meet a quota. No one is there with an adult helper or aide. Everyone who participates is there because they have promise and potential. All students are expected to participate, to carry their weight, and ultimately to play their part.