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Teaching mildly autistic kids the ABC's of key social skills

Schools in the D.C. area are being pushed by parents to craft programs for an increasing number of students with Asperger syndrome or other forms of mild autism. People with the condition have difficulty interpreting and adjusting to social cues and situations.

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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009

The middle school years, when nothing seems more important or more impossible than fitting in, are rough for nearly everyone. But they are particularly brutal for preteens such as Will Gilbertsen, whose mild autism makes him stand out.

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Less than two months into sixth grade at Arlington County's Kenmore Middle School this fall, the freckle-faced 11-year-old with a passion for skateboarding had gained a reputation for racewalking through the halls between classes. "That's so I can't hear the teasing," he told his mother.

As the number of children with autism has ballooned nationwide, so has the population of children who, like Will, are capable of grade-level academics but bewildered by the social code that governs every interaction from the classroom to the cafeteria. Not so profoundly disabled that they belong in a self-contained classroom but lacking the social and emotional skills they need to negotiate school on their own, they often spend the bulk of their day in mainstream classes supported with a suite of special education services including life-skills groups and one-on-one aides.

For some students, that arrangement works. But many parents of this growing group worry that including children in the mainstream this way fails to teach them what they need to navigate the world independently and instead imbues them with a sense that they're unacceptably weird. Increasingly, Washington area educators are offering alternatives.

The Ivymount School in Rockville, a nationally recognized private school for children with special needs, launched a program for children on the mild end of the spectrum in 2006. The Auburn School for children with mild autism opened its doors in Herndon this fall, and Montgomery County, which has a rare public school program for children with mild autism, extended it into high school. Arlington, meanwhile, is planning a program to serve middle and high school students with mild autism beginning in September.

"I don't think keeping them in a very nice, self-contained room where everything is hunky-dory and everyone is like you is going to help them because all you're going to do is shelter them," said Coleen Silverman, whose sixth-grade son has Asperger's syndrome, a specific form of mild autism. "But you can't go to the other extreme and just throw them in there, do or die."

'Warehousing him'

When her son was in fifth grade last year, Silverman visited a public middle school in Arlington. She wondered who would have the time to deal with his meltdowns after he was accidentally jostled in the hall -- and who would have the training to teach him how to handle such situations. She envisioned daily lunchtime disasters in the cafeteria when her son, who wants badly to be social but doesn't quite know how, encountered students who didn't understand him.

School officials suggested he eat alone in the counselor's office, she said.

"How is that helping him?" Silverman said. "It's not. It's warehousing him."

She chose instead to enroll him this fall in the Auburn School. Social skills is one of five core classes there; teachers help students apply what they learn in the class to situations that arise at recess or in the middle of math. Everyone at the school, including office staff members, is trained to reinforce what students are learning about getting along in the world.

"The whole entire day is one big social skills class, essentially," said Erik Heyer, who founded Auburn after opening a school in Silver Spring for college-bound children with dyslexia in 2005, and hearing from parents of autistic children who were looking for something similar. Despite Auburn's $35,000-a-year tuition, there is enough demand for its services that he is planning to open a second campus in Montgomery next fall.

Children with mild forms of autism are so capable academically that their tantrums might appear to be willful misbehavior, their inability to turn in homework on time a sign of laziness. In fact, they struggle with neurological differences that make it difficult for them to control their emotions, organize their thoughts and imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling.


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