Teaching the ABC's of crucial social skills
As number of autistic kids rises, schools and programs are being created to aid those with mild form

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.

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.

But with help, they are capable of learning those skills, which are critical to getting and keeping a job -- or to a relationship.

'We had to get him out'

Arlington parent Denise Bunch also sent her son, a seventh-grader, to Auburn this fall. "We had to get him out" of his public middle school, she said, describing sixth grade, during which her son, increasingly depressed, came home more than once with bruises from fighting. He was recently invited to another boy's house to play, the first time in memory.

"I feel now more hopeful that he won't be with me his whole life," she said. "That he will go on to find things of interest and learn how to negotiate so he can have a job, so he can go to college, so he can have a life."

Bunch and Silverman said they enrolled their children in private school only as a last resort, recognizing that they were lucky to be able to afford that option. They are part of a group of Arlington parents who have pushed the school system, whose population of children with autism has risen from 23 to 285 in the past 12 years, to develop a program that targets the singular needs of children on the mild end of the spectrum.

The county's proposed program will start small, serving about five students next fall, said Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services. Two classrooms -- one each at the middle and high school levels -- will serve as a home base for students to visit throughout the day and a place for teaching social-skills classes. The school system will reallocate resources rather than adding ones, keeping costs relatively stable.

The proposal has drawn criticism from parents who say it doesn't reach a wide enough range of students and doesn't offer enough structured support. It is being reviewed by school officials, Crawley said.

Prince William and Prince George's counties have also designated schools with extra services for children with mild autism. But other districts, philosophically committed to mainstream inclusion as the best way to teach children how to cope with their challenges, have chosen not to.

"I know there's a certain pull to isolate, but I don't know that that is the answer," said Flo Bosch, coordinator of adaptive curriculum for Fairfax County schools, where officials have emphasized inclusion for more than 10 years. "I'm not so sure how that prepares them for being in the world."

But for Will Gilbertsen, inclusion wasn't working. Two months into school, he was showing signs of debilitating anxiety, his mother said. At home, he compulsively had to tap his feet on the floor in complicated patterns before crossing the threshold from one room to the next. The smallest incidents sent him flying into a rage. He wet the bed.

One afternoon, he sat at the kitchen counter with his head in his hands.

"He said, 'Do you ever get so tired, and things just get so hard for you, that you think maybe you should die?' " recalled Kathleen Atmore, Will's mom and a neuropsychologist who specializes in autism. "I was terrified."

In early November, he visited the Ivymount School and joined a group of boys playing a game of foursquare that was modified to reward students who approached difficult skills -- such as taking turns and conquering frustration -- with grace.

A budding guitarist who performed fearlessly at a recent charity benefit at George Mason University, Will worried that going to a special school might ruin his chances for a career as a rock star. When Atmore assured him it wouldn't, he decided to give it a try. Next week, he'll enroll there, joining 29 students like him.

Atmore hopes that after a year, he'll learn the skills he needs to successfully return to Arlington public schools -- and that by then, the schools will be better prepared to teach him.

"Kids with social communication disorders want to be okay," she said, "but they need help. And schools need to recognize that in order to help them they have to tend to their social and emotional world. There's no other way to do it. It's not about the academics."

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