Lianna Miller’s son Bradley is nine years old. Miller marvels at the cartwheels and other physical feats he can perform. “He can do things with his body that are phenomenal without even thinking about it,” Miller said. “But he can’t speak.”
The Millers have been coping with Bradley’s autism since the syndrome first began to affect his development. After he entered school, they suspected he knew how to read but simply could not make the abstract connection that the words on the page stood for real things in the world. The Millers learned to be proud of accomplishments that most parents would take for granted.
When they left their home in Hawaii and moved to Fairfax County, Bradley was able to sit still in a chair. When he entered Washington Mill Elementary four years ago, that changed. “The class was total chaos the first year,” Miller said. “In fact it was dangerous for the children. They were totally out of control.” Every day, Bradley would enter an environment in which children were “jumping off desks and running around the room, spinning and flapping.”
Bradley’s hard-earned behavior lessons quickly regressed. “I was devastated,” Miller said. “If he’s out of control at school he’s out of control at home. It carries over.” She and her husband considered pulling Bradley from the school.
Washington Mills principal Tish Howard recognized the problem. She said that when she arrived three years ago, she realized the autism unit was isolated from the rest of the school, “two rooms at the end of the hallway. I don’t think much of the staff knew what was going on down there. The children weren’t well integrated in to the school community. Teachers were afraid of the word 'autism' and of having an autistic child in the classroom.”
Over the next two years, Howard hired three new teachers, Alyson DiSanto, Kathleen David and Kaet Ruffner. “They made a huge difference in the program,” Miller said.
“They knew how to reach the kids. They knew how to talk to them at their level and they knew how to establish boundaries and schedules for the kids. They really turned them into students. Before that I don’t think people really understood what their potential was.”
This year, Miller nominated the three teachers for an award for excellence in teaching autistic students from Parents of Autistic Children – Northern Virginia (POAC-NoVA). Tish Howard and bus driver Don Coffel and bus 840 aide Betty Agresto were also nominated.
“Our primary goal is to work with public school systems to advise them on doing more and better with kids with autism,” said Randy Nicklas, the president of POAC-NoVA. “There’s not a lot of expertise in the public school systems in how to deal with autistic children.” He praised Howard’s attention to autism. “As the principal goes, to a larger extent so goes the school. They set the tone.” At the end of July, POAC-NoVA informed the teachers they and another county teaching team had won the education award. Howard, Coffel and Agresto received honorable mentions. Howard also won an essay competition for her poem “Please See Me.”
HOWARD HAS HELPED Washington Mill's entire staff reach out to the 23 students in its autism unit. “Washington Mill does a good job of looking at my students as regular kids,” said DiSanto. “They do a very good job of accepting everybody.”
Bonnie Davis said she used to drive her son to school until she met Coffel and Agresto, who operate the bus that transports the school’s autistic students. “They always greet [the students] with a big smile. They’re always so loving and so gracious they really seem to love what they do,” Davis said.
Coffel said he spends one hour and twenty minutes a day with students in the autism unit.
He has been a special education driver since 1996. “You become accustomed to the children, and kind of react to them according to the way they react,” he said. Some are boisterous, some silent, some want the same seat every day and get upset being moved. He said that one student insists on being “wrapped up” by Coffel before he’ll settle down. “He’ll want me to come back there and grab him and put him in his seat. He’ll want to kind of wrestle. He’s a little guy. For some reason he gets a kick out of that and I’ll put him in his seat and he’ll put his seatbelt on and that’s the end of it. He comes to school really wound up.”
“It’s a job that I really enjoy,” Coffel said. “You can’t help but become attached to these kids,” he added. “I’ve always looked forward to going back in September.”
MILLER SAID SHE’S NOTICED “a huge difference” in Bradley in the last three years, “simple things like keeping his shoes on all day, sitting at a desk.” She said he had relearned to function in a mainstream classroom with his peers, and he brought his new skills home. “He would be able to stand in line with me at a counter somewhere. And he would be able to wait. He would be able to comply when I gave him a task to do. When I asked him to do something he would respond to that, because he was used to following instructions.”
“We celebrate what children with autism can do,” said Howard. “There are a lot of celebrations. Autism in this school is not a program at the end of the hallway. We have 520 [students] and 23 of them happen to have autism… it’s just another facet of our population.”
But the school is not forcing students with autism into environments they aren’t prepared for. Howard and DiSanto say they favor an incremental approach to integrating students into mainstream classrooms. Three years ago, Howard said, they tried placing an autistic student into a first grade class. But “he just wasn’t ready for it.” He would scream, hide under his desk and throw things. So they experimented with putting him in class for ten minutes a day. Over the next three years, they gradually increased this time. Last year he spent three hours a day in the class.
“Mainstreaming is reciprocal,” Howard explained. "A child needs to give to the environment as well as receive from the environment. A child needs to feel he’s contributing to the environment, not just letting the education flow past him.”
DiSanto said she carefully interprets her students’ “nonverbal body language” to understand what is working for them. Her students make eye contact with her, which is rare in an autism classroom. Every morning DiSanto questions each of her students to see which reinforcer they will be responsive too that day. This can be anything from a minute with a toy racecar to letting them watch her do a cartwheel on the playground. She typically breaks the classroom down into small groups, then helps the students complete very specific tasks again and again to reinforce their understanding.
“We measure success in much smaller increments,” said Howard. “But a success is a success. Just as you would celebrate a 600 score on the SOL you need to celebrate an autistic kid sitting in his chair for 30 minutes. We celebrate equally.”