Autism program takes team approach to teaching

The autism classroom was created at Fairhaven three years ago.
& lt;a & gt;By DENISE DICK & lt;/a & gt;
NILES -- When 10-year-old Michael Aldridge entered Trumbull County Educational Service Center's autism program he spoke only two words and grew anxious around too much activity.
Three years later, his vocabulary spans more than 200 words and he uses picture cards to explain what he wants.
"The staff has been just fabulous," said his mother, Sue Aldridge of Howland. "We couldn't be happier."
Michael is one of the pupils served by TCESC's transitional program that helps pupils with autism and communication delays. The program works in cooperation with Trumbull County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities and the county's school districts.
Michael still can't have a conversation, explain how his day was, or tell his mother when he's sick. But he says words such as chicken, fries and pop and sings songs from the Walt Disney movie "Beauty and the Beast."
"He's repeating things he's heard and he had never done that before," Aldridge said. "His speech has improved immensely."
Team concept
Because some pupils with autism require instructional methods different from others, the center's team concept was created.
A team consists of the classroom teacher, occupational therapist, speech pathologist and school psychologist and works with the teacher, service providers, school building administrator and parents to meet the pupil's learning needs.
Three years ago, the autism transitional unit classroom was created at Fairhaven in Niles to accommodate pupils whose needs couldn't be met in a regular classroom.
Michael was one of those pupils. Through trying to help him learn, teacher Wendy Szakacs worked with the autism team and Kathy Vilsack, TCESC's multidisabled department supervisor, to create the classroom.
The facility offers a swimming pool, therapy swing and therapy balls, gym and living-skills room. Those activities provide a physical outlet for autistic children to help them cope with anxiety.
"It provides activities at regular times throughout the day and it allows them to regulate their system," Szakacs said. "Then they're better able to focus and ready to learn."
Four children, including Michael, attend the Fairhaven classroom, where Szakacs is now the teacher. Each pupil has an aide throughout the day.
Michael learned to use picture cards to indicate what he's trying to communicate. He gets a card and gives it to his teacher or aide, showing what he wants.
Class sessions also address going out into public, with practice runs at the mall, restaurants and other shopping centers. For the first session, Szakacs called the pretzel shop at the mall to order Michael's pretzel ahead of time.
Making strides
It took some practice for Michael to learn to wait, and the activities in the Fairhaven classroom enable him to burn off anxiety so he can focus on the task at hand.
He now goes up to the counter and presents a card with a picture of a pretzel to the cashier to place his order.
His mother has noticed the change as well.
"We couldn't take him out to a public place before -- it was too stimulating," Aldridge said. "He can do that so much better now."
That's made things easier on the family.
"He's happier when he comes home from school," Aldridge said. "He can't wait for school."
Vilsack said that when working with autistic children "you accept them where they are and figure out how to get them to where they need to be."
Carlotta Sheets, TCESC human resources and communications supervisor, said the center's autism program has been well received throughout the state and has received grants and awards from the Ohio Department of Education. TCESC's program is being used as a model for other counties, she said.
After working to set up the transitional classroom, Szakacs got hooked.
"I just fell in love with the kids," she said. "When I'm able to be successful with them and able to help them and then you see their parents light up."
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