Okeechobee educators seek ways to reach and teach children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder; Every ASD child is different — there is no “cookie cutter” method for teaching students with ASD

“Every one of the children on the Autism Spectrum is so different,” said Renee Geeting, Okeechobee County School District Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services. Educating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is particularly challenging because of those differences.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

About 1 percent of the students (1 in 100) in the Okeechobee County School District have been identified as ASD. Nationwide, about 1 in 68 children has been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. ASD is about 4.5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189). ASD tends to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions. About 10 percent of children with Autism are also identified as having Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or other genetic and chromosomal disorders. Children born to older parents are at a higher risk for having ASD, according to CDC data.

It’s a myth that there has been an ASD “epidemic,” according to the CDC. The perceived increase in ASD cases is related to increased awareness and to the fact that it is now treated as a spectrum.
“You have a wide range of students on the spectrum,” said Mrs. Geeting. “They can be anything from non-verbal to very verbal.” Public awareness of ASD also means children are diagnosed earlier, and early diagnosis means those children can benefit from therapies sooner.

“There is an increased awareness in the medical community. Doctors have begun to identify children who are on the spectrum between the ages of birth and 2 years old,” explained Mrs. Geeting.
Children on the spectrum may also have a wide range of intellectual ability. According to CDC data, almost half of children identified with ASD have average to above average intellectual ability.
Children with ASD  often find social interaction difficult, said Director of Exceptional Education Wendy Coker. This also includes social interaction in the classroom,

A doctor can make the determination of Autism Spectrum Disorder, explained Mrs. Coker, However, not all children on the spectrum need additional help from the school system. “There must be evidence of educational relevance as well,” said Mrs. Coker.

A student who is on the spectrum might be in general education classes and making all A’s and B’s and not disrupting the classroom, indicating the disorder is not impeding that student from learning in a regular classroom situation, explained Mrs, Geeting.

“We have students on the spectrum in general education classes who need some support,’ said Mrs. Coker. “We have some who need full time support.”

There’s no “cookie cutter” educational program for students with ASD, she said. “It depends on the student.”

“We have to match the educational program with where the student is on the spectrum,” said Mrs. Geeting.
If a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder comes from a doctor, and the parents bring the medical diagnosis to the school system, a meeting is set up to begin to work with that child.

“We begin to look at eligibility for children on the spectrum at the pre-K level,” said Mrs. Coker. “That’s when we begin having the discussions, so when they go into kindergarten the services are provided to that child’s needs,” explained Mrs. Coker.

If needed, the child is matched with a board certified behavioral analyst who works with the classroom teachers and parents, to develop behavior plans for socialization training.

“We work with the state discretionary projects such as the Florida Diagnostic & Learning Resources Systems,” said Mrs. Coker

The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) provides to the district technical assistance for observations and plans for the students to work with the students in their classrooms. CARD offers training for parents with workshops and group meetings for teenagers with social anxiety.
CARD provides training for school employees and law enforcement personnel.

“The spectrum is so large,” said Mrs. Geeting. “The needs of one student on the spectrum may not match the needs of another on the spectrum.”

Everyone works together, said Mrs. Coker, “We all communicate so we are not overlapping.”

Some teachers have sought more training in working with students on the spectrum, There are teachers in the Okeechobee school system who have been certified by the Department of Education as Autism Endorsed, both general education and Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teachers.
The training helps educators with teaching strategies both academic and behavioral for the students, Mrs. Coker said.

In many cases, ASD children have an inability to pick up on social cues.

“They take what you say literally in many instances,” said Mrs. Geeting.

“Every student is different,” she added.

This week several teachers and staff from Okeechobee were in Jupiter for a seminar on mental health and Autism. Children on the spectrum might also suffer from other mental health issues or disabilities that could effect their ability to succeed in a classroom.

A child might have more than one disability, for example a child with Attention Deficit Disorder might also suffer from anxiety, said Ms. Geeting.

“It takes a team,” said Ms. Geeting. “It has to be the parents getting the medical diagnosis and bringing it to the school.

“We work with that,” said Mrs. Coker. “We have to be successful in the educational setting.”
Mrs. Coker said the schools try to make the environment as calm as possible for ASD students. For example they have purchased covers for the fluorescent lights in some classrooms.

“For a child who is hypersensitive, the lights hurt,” she said. “If the child can’t communicate that the light is bothering them, it can be very frustrating. As teachers we always need to be aware of somebody else’s needs.”

Just because a child can’t communicate does not mean that child does not understand what is going on around him. The general public, and even the parents of some ASD children, may still accept some of the myths about ASD as depicted on television or in movies.

“It’s not just Autism,” said Mrs. Geeting. “It happens with any disability. People tend to generalize, but no two children with a disability are alike.”

Students on the spectrum might be enrolled in any of the Okeechobee schools, depending on the abilities and needs of the child.

They might be in general education classes or in special education classes.
Okeechobee Achievement Academy, which houses a variety of educational programs, has some classes that target children with social/emotional problems, including classes for children with disabilities who have behavior problems.

There is a misconception in the community that OAA is only for students who are enrolled in discipline programs, the educators explained.

“Students who attend OAA have not been expelled,” said Mrs. Geeting. “There are various programs there, and students are placed in those programs for various reasons.” At one time, the gifted program was at OAA, simply because that building had the classroom space available, she added.

School and class placement depends on the student’s needs, said Mrs. Coker. Some don’t need intensive services.

“At times, you can walk into a classroom with students who are uncommunicative and you can see the frustration because they can’t communicate their basic wants and needs,” she said.

“I remember one student who every day caused such an uproar in the classroom,” said Mrs. Geeting. “We finally discovered that every day her lunch had been at 10:30 a.m. and lunch period had been changed to 12:30 p.m.” The student was simply hungry and was extremely frustrated by being unable to communicate her need.

Mrs. Coker suggested anyone who is interested in an eye opening experience about the spectrum go to the autismspeaks.org website to learn about “Carly’s Voice” author Carly Fleischmann.

“Carly is a child on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. At the age of 12 she started typing. She has written a book and blogs with others with Autism,” explained Mrs. Coker. “The key is unlocking their world to communication.”

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