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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.


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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.

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Benefits of Immersion 3: Teachers Talk

“I love the end-of-the-year-all-staff-meeting when everyone and everything comes together and we get to visually see all the accomplishments that took place that year. It has always made me feel like I am a part of something bigger and gives me a huge sense of community and school pride. I also wanted to just say again that if an opportunity, project etc. comes up that you feel I may be able to contribute towards, please never hesitate to ask. I feel so blessed that I came to be a part of the Oakstone community 7 years ago, and honestly I do not have the words to express the gratitude and respect I have in  my heart for you.”             -A middle school/high school teacher

One of the things that students and families alike enjoy about our Academic and Social Immersion Model is the teachers. We hear time and time again about the impact that our teachers have in a child’s day, week, even a family’s daily life. We are proud of our outstanding teachers, but several things set them up for success in an immersion model.


  1. Our teachers know what they signed up for. Our teachers are hired understanding that the school they work in is a model program for Academic and Social Immersion. They aren’t surprised by ratios of peers to students with ASD. They expect challenging behaviors or quirky communication issues. They want to be teaching all of the students in their classrooms, not just a portion of them. They have a passion not only for young people or for their subject matter, but for seeing the model succeed. Communicating expectations about immersion to staff helps keep everyone on the same page.

“ “Well, you did your best.” These five words from a graduating student at the end of an Exit IEP meeting make up one of the greatest compliments I’ve received during my career as a teacher.  As one of the last teachers students work with before leaving our academic and social immersion environment, I get the pleasure of seeing the rewards of our unique setting. Students graduate from Oakstone Academy prepared to take on whatever is next. Whether it is college, trade school, or competitive employment, our students are prepared.  They will succeed because they have been challenged by an educational model that pushes everyone to do their best. Teachers do their best to ensure students meet rigorous academic and social expectations and students push one another through positive peer pressure to participate in extracurricular activities, to reach out to a struggling friend, or to try a college-level course. We are all doing our best, and in turn, our students are thriving.  The academic and social immersion model at Oakstone Academy has taught me when “your best” is the expectation, everyone benefits (and sometimes along the way you get a nice compliment for your efforts).” – A high school intervention specialist


2. Our teachers are members of a teaching and learning community.  The teachers in our Academic and Social Immersion Model not only have other teachers, intervention specialists, and paraprofessionals to rely on, but they also have ABAs, SLPs, and OTs who expect to be working in classrooms with the teaching team to improve student achievement. Additionally, all of our administrators were once teachers in the model, so the advice they give is based on experience in similar situations. Anything that we ask our teachers to do is based in researched best practice and has been tried by the person giving feedback.

“I want to preface this letter by reiterating that ALL of the teachers and staff at this preschool amaze me with their talent, compassion, love, and dedication (I could go on and on).  It is an AMAZING place to work. With that said, I wanted to just take a minute to really single Miss Bridget out. She had some kiddos with some tough challenges in her class this year and she and her team were the perfect teachers for this group!  Bridget’s calm demeanor was exactly what was needed for a couple of our easily over-aroused kiddos. She was able to maintain complete control with a steady, calm, and quiet voice/manner. Her patience was exactly what was needed for a couple of the kids with processing issues that did just really need someone to simply wait it out rather than repeating the request again and again. She reacted quickly and calmly to address behavior issues and seems to know just how to handle each of the kids’ very different needs when it comes to behaviors.  I saw her using tools that had been recommended for different kids and appreciated that she was open to suggestions. You would not know to look in her class that she actually started the year out with some of the school’s most challenging behavior issues. It was amazing to me to see where the kids in this class started out (from both a behavior stand point and a skill development standpoint) and where they ended up by year’s end. I learned a great deal from her and am looking forward to working in her class again sometime.” -An preschool occupational therapist  


3. Our teachers feel supported by staff, parents, and each other.  Our teachers know that they can ask for help at any time to facilitate the best lesson, class, or interaction possible. They know that our parents have chosen this model and are on board with it (though sometimes still need education in it). They know that a free exchange of ideas is important to the success of the program and that asking for help is expected because no one has all of the answers.


“I have seen the benefits of an immersive environment through my cousin who attends (the school). When he was first diagnosed we were told that he would never be able to communicate, and that he was deaf because he would not respond to others. He also would not show any affection to his family members. He started attending Oakstone when he was 4 years old, he is now 16 years old. While he still considered non-verbal, he has made so many gains! He is able to communicate his needs, listen to others, and he will even hug his dad and other family members. I started working at Oakstone last year because I loved how much this school helped my cousin. I am now able to see first hand how this school and an immersive environment helps so many kids, and it’s so exciting to see how much they are able to grow. Today, our students had an assignment for morning work, their assignment was to write what they were thankful for. This leaf was written by one of our students who demonstrates how beneficial the immersive environment is for students.” -An elementary teacher

leaf pic


4. Our teachers genuinely like doing what they do and feel personally connected to it.  Staff in our Academic and Social Immersion Model see growth happening before their eyes each and every day. They get excited by not only the big leaps, but the baby steps in learning, whether that learning is academic, social, emotional, or communication-based. Our staff continuously amaze us in their support of “our kids” as they sign up to travel with them, begin new extracurricular activities, or just go that extra mile to help a student understand a tough concept.


For some of our students with ASD, our teachers are the first adults outside of their families who really “get” them and like them as they are. Our teachers don’t simply teach the Academic and Social Immersion Model; they live it everyday. They hold the keys to the program’s success.

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Benefits of Immersion Part 2: Don’t take our word for it!

In Academic and Social Immersion, students with disabilities are full members of the community. Imagine the difference that makes in their lives. We don’t have to imagine at Oakstone Academy because we see it everyday. We see lives being changed through immersion. Listen to a few of our students with autism spectrum disorder share the things that stand out to them about their school.

“The teachers are great. They are kind and respectful. They’re good at helping you with work. They just make school fun in general.” -10th grade student 

Teachers in Academic and Social Immersion are trained to work with all types of students. Differentiation is the norm–the expectation. Students with IEPs participate in the general education curriculum with supports added where needed and removed when the student is ready. Teachers are more positive and accepting of all types of students because this is literally what the teachers signed up for. The experience and knowledge these teachers have raises the bar of expectations for students with and without disabilities. The focus of instruction really becomes student understanding and engagement for all learners. Teachers celebrate success and progress, but never stop pursuing improved outcomes.


“I like learning now. I just want more leaning. That’s something that happened when I came to Oakstone.”  -6th grade student

Because teachers are trained and create a learning environment that works for many different types of learners, many students become passionate about learning. They feel smart–some for the first time. They feel capable and ready to take on challenges. They read more than they thought they could, write more than they ever have, and master content that surprises even their parents and teachers because they discover the inner motivation and passion for learning that comes from the feeling of success in school.


“I like that everybody’s kind here. They actually enforce the No Bullying policy. It (bullying) just doesn’t happen non-stop with no consequence.” -6th grade student

Immersion works when everyone is a member of the community. Students know when posters are hung and lip service is given to inclusion and anti-bullying, but the message is not ingrained in the culture. True inclusion can be messy and uncomfortable when students are held accountable for their words and their behaviors. Sometimes difficult conversations are needed, but they pay off in the positive and welcoming culture built in the school.


“We don’t have stereotypes or bullies or gossip or rumors. I don’t understand when my friends from other schools talk about those things. They just aren’t part of my life.” -7th grade student

Gossip and backstabbing, rumors and cliques….media and culture would tell us that those are all just part of middle school and high school.  But they don’t have to be. For many students these aspects of school take over their life and distract from learning and from building relationships. In an Academic and Social Immersion school, everyone has value because everyone is a fully-participating member of the group. Social and emotional learning, character education, and social skills training are incorporated in classes as well as extracurriculars. Everyone represents the school, and their individual and team success is celebrated, whether success for them is a basketball team victory or a great ACT score or a successful service project. All of these activities build the school’s identity and culture, so all are valued.


“I make a lot of friends here. The kids are cool.” -6th grade student

The power of a friend cannot be overstated. In the Academic and Social Immersion Model, we see students have friends. Students are invited to parties, hang out outside of school, or socialize online for the students who live further apart. We watch students help each other and look out for one another. We see true lasting friendships between students of all abilities and backgrounds.


“The atmosphere of the school? Thumbs up! I’m me here, and people like me for me. That’s a new one.” -8th grade student

Middle school and high school are challenging times for everyone as adolescents figure out who they are. Some kids like gaming; other prefer sports. Some want to dress like a Abercrombie model, while others prefer worn jeans and concert tees. In Academic and Social Immersion, everyone has a place and is respected, regardless of interests. While we actively teach students with social impairments how to behave appropriately in social settings, we also support individual interests. It feels good to be accepted.  


“I love Oakstone with all my heart and the school literally changed my life, socially, mentally, and physically. You don’t see our level of inclusion in any other schools. They are a second family to me. Without Oakstone, I wouldn’t have the social skills I have today.” -12th grade student

Academic and Social Immersion does not stop at the classroom door. Students feel safe and accepted in extracurriculars and social events as well. Students step outside the box of their own interests and join clubs or teams that may be a stretch for them because they know the group will catch them if they fall. The success they feel during the school day extends to many different events.


While we adults who facilitate Academic and Social Immersion believe strongly in what we do, it’s the students who see the results and carry the model forward. Academic and Social Immersion is not a fad or an add-in. It is a powerful tool for building a school climate of acceptance, success, and confidence.