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For autistic children, Dorothy Siegel does not believe in paraprofessionals, the teaching assistants sometimes assigned to shadow students in class.
To show you why, Ms. Siegel, 70, a longtime special education advocate, grabs your arm, pokes you and forcibly turns your head toward the teacher, the way an aide might.
“The para is not someone who’s there to help a child understand how to interpret the environment so he doesn’t get upset,” she said recently. “The para is there to keep him out of trouble, so they’ll allow him to continue in that classroom.”
Over the last 14 years, Ms. Siegel has tried to create a better way to teach students with autism. The program she started, called ASD Nest, is now in 39 elementary, middle and high schools in New York City. The aim is to help autistic students understand the school environment and their own needs, so they can function both in and out of school.
This year, 17,015 students in New York City public schools were classified as having autism as a disability, up from 13,685 in 2014-15. In recent years, a growing number of autistic students have been integrated into classrooms with general education students, with many of them being served in the Nest program.
“We basically cash in paraprofessionals and buy teachers,” said Ms. Siegel, who has a round face, a halo of gray hair and a direct manner. “The whole goal of the Nest program is to replace people who hush children with teachers who understand children.”
A Nest class typically has two certified teachers, four students with autism and eight to 20 general education students, depending on the grade. To get into the program, children with autism must be deemed capable of doing grade-level work. Three times a week they are pulled out for social development intervention, which is led by a speech therapist and is meant to teach students how to navigate social interactions.
Some parents ask for their general education children to be placed in a Nest class because of the smaller class size and the extra teacher, or because the program emphasizes teaching children to be kind and respectful to one another. Ms. Siegel said principals consider such requests but may have other priorities in putting the class together.
For Ms. Siegel, a former senior researcher for the New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy — and a longtime friend of the New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña — Nest’s mission is personal. Her son Sam, 34, is autistic. He attended two publicly funded private special education schools and graduated from New York University. But educational outcomes for most autistic children are grim. Thirty-six percent of students with autism attend any type of postsecondary school in their 20s, according to the A. J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University.
Ms. Siegel said her inspiration to start the program, which came while reading “Thinking in Pictures,” Temple Grandin’s memoir about autism, was “as much a call as any religious person has ever had.”
To devise it, she teamed up with Shirley Cohen, a professor of special education at Hunter College. (Nest teachers are required to take two graduate-level courses at Hunter focused on teaching children with autism.) They started the program in Public School 32, in Brooklyn’s District 15, where Ms. Siegel had been on the school board and which Ms. Fariña was then overseeing as a superintendent. When Ms. Fariña became a deputy chancellor in 2004, Ms. Siegel said, “She called me in and she says, ‘I want you to put this in every district.’ ”
At Public School 682, the Academy of Talented Scholars, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on a recent spring morning, the techniques Nest uses were on display throughout the building. There was relatively little on classroom walls, because the usual jumble of posters and charts can be overwhelming to autistic students. In several classes, the lights were off, leaving the room in a kind of twilight. Christina Ramsay, a fifth-grade teacher, said some autistic students find the lights visually overstimulating, while others have such sensitive hearing that they can hear the lights buzz. Her co-teacher, Neil Rathan, led the students in a math game in a voice so low and gentle that a visitor could barely hear him.
Some students had pedals, like bicycles, under their desks to allow those who need to fidget to pedal their feet while they worked. Every Nest classroom had a corner outfitted with pillows or a rug, to which students could retreat to soothe themselves. To help students put small irritants and sources of distress in context, some classes had signs on the wall saying, “What kind of problem is this?!” and listing a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 being a “Little Problem” and 5 being an “Emergency Problem.”
In Nest, teachers do a lot of modeling of appropriate social interaction. In a third-grade class, Michelle Dragisics divided the students into small groups to measure polygons in tape on the floor. In each group, one person was to take the measurements, one was supposed to help and another was to record.
A few minutes later, Ms. Dragisics noticed a boy in a black shirt sitting on the side of the room looking lost, so she led him to his group.
“Now that our whole group is here,” she said, “let’s make sure that everybody has a role.”
Later, she explained, “We try to put a lot of the hidden curriculum of school on their radar.” A teacher might say, for instance, “I wonder what so-and-so is thinking,” or, “Your face is telling me that you’re upset.”
In social development intervention — or “social club,” as the students called it — four fourth graders watched a video of strangers making conversation and finding things in common based on various prompts. Deirdre Whiffin, a speech therapist, led a game in which each student wrote on a Post-it something they did over spring break, and then everyone had to guess who did what.
“You have to go into your friend files,” she said, gently suggesting to the children that it was important to try to retain information about other people, something that a child with autism might not understand.
The city has not methodically tracked outcomes for students in the program. Ms. Siegel said she knew anecdotally that at least half of the students in the two original classes in 2003 were in college, but she could not provide more detailed information.
Catherine Lord, the director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said she did not know of another program for autistic students that was as comprehensive and well organized, though she has not done a formal evaluation.
“I’ve been completely impressed,” she said.
The Education Department is continuing to expand the program, adding four more schools next year. And New York University, which houses the ASD Nest Support Project, which has six staff members, including Ms. Siegel, is working to expand the model outside New York. The city of Aarhus, Denmark, started its first Nest classes last year, and the Skaneateles Central School District in northern New York is planning to start a Nest program, as well, Ms. Siegel said.
Christina, a mother whose son is in second grade in a Nest class at Public School 84, the José De Diego School, in Brooklyn, and who did not want her last name used to protect her son’s privacy, said that when her son was in prekindergarten, “he would come out with his fingers chewed to the bone from anxiety.” But since he started in Nest in kindergarten, things have significantly improved, she said. He keeps a “body sock” — essentially a long, stretchy pillowcase — in a corner of the classroom that he can go into to calm himself if he gets anxious.
His classmates take that in stride. At that age, Ms. Siegel said, the children don’t really notice that some of their classmates behave differently. “To a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old, everything is normal,” she said. Though at 7 or 8 a child might say, “‘Ooh, that’s weird,’” she said. “Younger than that, kids just love each other.”
She added, “ So you can build on that, and create great relationships.”
Via : nytimes