Children with autism need special support so they can flourish in traditional schools.
Currently, the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center works with school districts to help educators build internal capacity for supporting the unique social and behavior challenges that face children and with autism.
"We have a very robust education and training calendar here where teachers can come get training and then we are also in the classroom providing support, feedback and coaching to teachers or aids to help our kids," said Doctor Daniel Openden, Vice President and Clinical Director at SARRC.
Gabi Bryan, a mother whose 5-year-old son Lucas has autism, knows first-hand how critical this support is. Lucas was diagnosed at 2-years-old and referred to SARRC for the early-intervention Jumpstart program, which provides parents with an introduction to autism.
Lucas attended SARRC's Community School pre-kindergarten classroom from age four to five, then transitioned to kindergarten in the Levine School District, where SARRC was able to consult with the school to help train the teacher and aid in Lucas' kindergarten classroom.
Lucas initially experienced some problems in the classroom, including struggling to transition to circle time and stay seated during the activity and running around classroom during activities where the students were supposed to be seated.
With help from SARRC, the teachers were able to implement "little things that made a big difference" such as a "transition toy" to serve as positive reinforcement and something for Lucas to "hold on to" during the circle-time activity.
SARRC also helped the teachers understand some of the problematic and distracting behaviors, such as running around the classroom, that Lucas engaged in because it was attention-seeking. For Lucas, when he ran around the classroom, the teachers would chase him and, without their knowledge, they were actually enforcing the behavior by making him feel like it was a game.
Instead, SARRC coached them to not chase him, eliminating the attention and instead reward and acknowledge him when he was doing more positive behaviors, such as sitting in his seat when he was supposed to.
Currently, Lucas is doing extremely well according to his proud mom. He has just learned how to read.
"This is the closest to feeling like he's a typical child," she said. "For a very long time, I doubted he was going to be patient enough to read."
In Arizona, SARRC consults with a handful of school districts to address the needs of specific children with autism who are mainstreamed into a typical classroom and need additional support to be successful in that environment.
On much larger scale, SARRC is consulting with the state of Hawaii and Arkansas to train teachers to build capacity at the district level, with an ultimate goal of eliminating the need for outside consulting because the internal staff will have the skills required to work with the children.