Autism: an Abbeville school trying to teach how to connect

The second part of the story on autism goes into the treatment side of the disorder.

In the dictionary, autism is described as the absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, such as daydreams, fantasies, delusions, and hallucinations, that are especially noticeable when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality.

In Abbeville, Sensory Pathways has established themselves as a treatment center to work with children on motor skills, diet, attention skills, learning programs and language skills. Mary Brown Toups has been working with children with disabilities and has her degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Early Intervention. Lorri Malagarie is an occupational therapist and looks all too happy playing down on the floor or at the gym equipment with the children.

The basic self expression of an autistic is called stemming: the flapping of the hands, or the running in place or even hitting one’s head against a wall. The stemming can also come in the form of focusing on a repetitious event, like the turning of a fan, or the turning of a tire wheel.

Malagarie said that “the reason for the stemming is to enable the autistic person to exert enough energy to be able to calm down. A part of the sensory work that we do includes using deep pressure massages that helps to minimize the amount of stemming. We have the ability to let the children bounce on some really big balls to exert energy and also work on their sense of balance at the same time. We also have a rock climbing wall for the same reason. And there are lots of floor pads and even some water bed pads that we use for safety and balance therapy.”

She said that it takes a very calm demeanor to work with the autistic children, and that the lower a voice tone that they use in the school, the fewer tantrums the children tend to have. Most of the autistic children have a tendency to lash out by either biting or hitting which is unacceptable behavior in the normal day care or school environment. Because of this, Malagarie said that they have to keep a close eye on the children to make sure they don’t hurt each other or even go so far as to hurt the teachers.

Language is one skill area that the typical autistic child cannot master. For this, Malagarie said that “language has to be simple and directed to what the child likes. Since the kids can’t talk, we have to come up with a type of communication that can be learned and repeated both at school and at home. Teaching sign language is one method that we use successfully, but we also have to reinforce good behavior and the learning by lots of praise to build up their self confidence. This past summer, we had one child that learned eight signs and four words in a two month period from June - July.”

The autistic child needs a lot of structure and routine with their activities, as was reported earlier with Paul Trahan and how tight his daily activities needed to be performed, from waking, to eating and nap time. The routine is critical because getting off-schedule can mean increased tantrums and stemming that will last the entire day.

Toups said that autistic children may have the ability to read, but are then unable to answer a simple question, such as “what is your name?” “We have to find where the communication process is breaking down for that child. I found that by touching my cheek and saying my name, instead of touching my chest, when I identify myself to the children that they were having a higher retention rate. This is the sort of success results that Lorri and I pass along to each other to begin the process of examining whether it will work for other children as well.”

“Most of the problems the autistic children have,” said Toups, “are problems with the “WH” words, like who, what where, when and why. In school, the biggest problem these children have is the overload of children to the numbers of teachers and aids available to work in the classroom. The schools are great for the structure they bring to the children, but the schools don’t generally have the budgets to create as large a sensory room as we have established at the school in Abbeville.

Toups left the traditional school system to work at Sensory Pathways. At their school, the student/teacher ratio is generally eight children to a teacher and four aides. Typically, the children enrolled with them are the ones traditional school or day care have asked to leave their system or have been a behavior/danger either to themselves or to another child.

As for system operations, Toups said they are very similar to the traditional school system in that goals and objectives are established and monitored. Each child has a game plan created so the parents and teachers know what is being worked on, what results are being obtained and what the parents need to know about what communication skills are worked on in school that they can put into use back in their homes. The school also follows up with the parents to see if what works in school still works at home.

Treatment in the classroom has the curved table for the children to sit at so that the teacher can have each child closer to work with them. In the case of an autistic person that is unable to focus on the work because of the distractions, there is also a small camping pup tent set up for the teacher and child to crawl into for more privacy and one-on-one work. The goal here is to de-sensitise the child as much as possible from outside interference, whether it’s from the brightness of the room lights to the sounds in the room from the other children.

The school also has their own set of cds for the autistic child. Primarily, the headphones help to drown out distracting noises, but have been made with the autistic person in mind. The music cds do not simply play your favorite song; rather, they are manufactured for the autistic to be able to comprehend and use as a tool to learn to focus.

Malagarie said their advantage in working with autistic children is the ability to individually work with each child in the area they need the help. “Until their hearing is normalized, these children won’t sit still and pay attention in a traditional class. The teachers expect a child to come into a class and pay attention, but, then, these guys start looking off to the side, move around in their seats and even get up and walk around the classroom, and they will be the ones who get lost in the traditional school system because the teachers don’t have time to work with them as they need.”

Malagarie emphasized the point that the inner ear has a lot to do with the problems the autistic face daily. She said that not only does the inner ear control the volume of what is heard, it also controls the persons ability to stay physically balanced. The music therapy used at the school helps the autistic child to organize noise more successfully, which is helpful for traveling, normal daytime activities or even sleeping.

Regarding traditional school, she said that the children at Sensory Pathways are handled a little different in class work. “In school, or at home,” Malagarie said, “the children know that if they put up enough of a struggle, they will most likely be able to get out of finishing a project. With us, we have a lower student/pupil ratio to be able to give more one on one attention, and if a child needs to take time out to work out some energy in the gym, then we will go do it. This way, the children know they can’t skip a project by stemming. At the same time, we can set aside more personal time, whether for the gym or the classroom, to do the work that is needed.”

In the end, the autistic child is just the same as an adult when they learn to sort out the things that are important. And, like adults, sleep is a key ingredient to the type of day they will have.

During the interview, three year old Paul Schmuck was going through the steps of his gym workout. Looking as happy as any other child with an iPod, he made his way around with the headphones on and the special therapy music playing in his ears. His activity board shows the areas he needs to include in his workout along with the multiple choices he has to work on at each skill level.

Patrick is the son of Jennifer and Mark and came to the school with an acute socialization issue. His mother said he would go to the park but was always off by himself. He was basically afraid to play with the other children in the park and spent the majority of the time there screaming instead of playing. Now, according to his mother, he is more open to spending time with other children.

In the meantime, his younger sister, Maria, takes mom by the hand and does her best to make her way through the gym pieces as well. She is just over a year old and does not show any signs of autism.

Malagarie said the approximate cost of Sensory Pathways school is in about the same range as traditional day care. The children are at the school approximately four hours a day and, according to Malagarie, leave the school “pooped.”

“These children can’t go into a typical day care; the teachers aren’t trained to work with them and don’t have the student/pupil ratio to handle the autistic child. Also, the school children have no idea what to do or how to handle an autistic child when they get out of control,” commented Malagarie.

“A lot of the children that we have are on medicaid, but we are not a medicaid provider.” Malagarie continued “We want to keep the classes limited to 5-8 children. Basically, we ask for a 30 day notice to stop attendance at any point. Our ultimate goal is to have these children growing into adulthood with diminishing problems.”

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