Gaithersburg School Tailors Teaching To Help Students Cope With Disorder

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

The first day of kindergarten found Alex Barth in the principal's office. The teacher had asked students to draw self-portraits. Alex had wanted to draw his in red crayon. There was no red crayon. Alex had melted down.

Alex was a capable child with superior intelligence -- and no end of eccentricities. He would flee noisy school assemblies. He couldn't bear the smell of the cafeteria. By the end of first grade, his mother was spending much of the day at Alex's side.

Robyne Barth soon learned her son had Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. Children with the disorder, known in shorthand as Asperger's, might have strong academic gifts but deficiencies in such social skills as carrying on a conversation and playing with others at recess.

On Thursday, Alex, 10, finished fourth grade at one of the nation's few public schools with a program tailored to children with Asperger's: Diamond Elementary School in Gaithersburg. He is popular and well-adjusted, and spends more and more of his school days in regular classes.

"I couldn't see my child as anything. I couldn't imagine him having a normal life," said Barth, of North Potomac. "And now, my child has a personality. He's funny. I can see him as an engineer. I can see him as an architect. I can see his life."

The program at Diamond Elementary is one of several in Montgomery County for children who have average to above-average intelligence but are coping with developmental disabilities. It addresses one of the most vexing problems in special education: What to do with a child who is disabled but capable of work at or above grade level? Such programs are unusual in public education. Because children with Asperger's often are bright and capable, albeit with some behavioral quirks, schools tend to assign them to regular classrooms, either missing or misdiagnosing their disability.

"Do you guys need a minute to draw a picture on your angry page?" teacher Cheryl Reed asked five Diamond Elementary students with Asperger's one afternoon last week. It was an exercise in personification, a concept each of the first- and second-graders seemed to understand perfectly, although they kept mispronouncing the word with the accent on the first syllable.

Second-grader Justin Daddona completed his picture, a sort of Maurice Sendak creation, and regarded it in triumph. "He's more than angry, he's furious," Justin said. "Look, his hair's coming off and smoke's coming out of his ears."

The program, with two teachers and four aides serving 15 children, focuses on two goals: teaching students to recognize and cope with manifestations of their disorder, such as a panic attack in the gymnasium or uncontrollable restlessness in math class; and easing them into regular classes to the greatest extent appropriate, a process called mainstreaming, which drives special education across the country.

The Asperger's program began seven years ago, part of an expanding suite of services for an autism population that tops 1,000 students in the 137,000-student system and is growing by 17 percent a year. It is housed at Diamond and Sligo Creek elementary schools and Tilden and Montgomery Village middle schools, serving students countywide.

Asperger's falls at the mild end of the autism spectrum, a range of disorders characterized by impairment in social interaction and communication. By varying estimates, Asperger's affects anywhere from one in 30,000 people to one in 200.

Hans Asperger, the Viennese physician who discovered the disorder, termed his subjects "little professors." In regular classes, such children might end up as misfits, prone to ill-timed outbursts, fidgety and frustrated, unable to read the body language of the agitated teacher hovering over them.

"The large, 25-kid classroom is too much for a lot of these kids," said Lucia Claster, an Arlington County parent who leads a support group of more than 120 families of children with Asperger's. "They're dealing with a general education teacher [who] may never have had a child with Asperger's before."

James Ball, a behavior analyst in Cranbury, N.J., who has consulted nationally on autism, said the Montgomery County effort "should be looked at as a model program" for teaching children with Asperger's, "because they are a unique breed of kids, and they do respond to a variety of unique teaching strategies."

An informal survey of local school systems found one other example, in Anne Arundel County, of a program designed for students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism, an umbrella term for children on the autism spectrum with average to above-average IQs. Anne Arundel schools team with a private special education school to help autism-spectrum children move into regular classes at two schools, Severn River Middle and Severna Park High.

The Hannah More program in Anne Arundel and the Asperger's program in Montgomery have similar structures. Students work their way from small, self-contained classes into regular classes over time, with support ranging from one-on-one help in the classroom to an occasional check-in with special educators.

The Asperger's classroom at Diamond Elementary is a home base for students, with an oasis of books, board games, yoga balls and Hot Wheels cars, to which any child can retreat from the regular classroom if things go awry. Students are trained to raise their hands if they need a break, and the entire school staff knows to respond.

That afternoon, Reed prepared her first- and second-graders for a schoolwide assembly, one of the most challenging scenarios for children with heightened sensitivity to stimuli. "Are we going to be screaming with our mouths?" Reed asked. No, the class responded in unison. "The only sound we're going to hear is what? Our hands," she said.

Each child in the program signs a behavior contract, agreeing to work on social skills: I will listen to instructions the first time. I will complete an assignment with one or fewer reminders. Good behavior is rewarded with Diamond Dolphin Dollars, which are redeemable for prizes.

Parent Staci Daddona of Gaithersburg said she is amazed at how well Reed's methods have worked with Justin, 7.

Justin's preschool experience was a nightmare: He would take one toy, a top, and play with it day after day, ignoring the teacher and the rest of class. At home, he took to opening and closing things -- the blinds, the garage door -- and flushed the toilet with such regularity that the family's water bill spiked.

Every attempt at public education failed until this year, Daddona said. Reed not only taught Justin to focus on his studies but also worked him into regular classes for part of the day. She has taught him to recognize when he is becoming anxious or upset, if she doesn't spot it first.

"When he starts to stand up, he'll press on the desk, because he's trying to calm himself that way," she said. "And she'll say, 'It looks like you need a break.' And that happens before he throws a pencil, and all the things that happened last year."

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