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Another Kind of School for Another Kind of Child

by Joe Devlin and Emily Berk
This piece was originally published in Coastviews, May 2002 issue.
Sherman Chan and Irma Velasquez wanted for their child what nearly all parents want for their children: for him to interact with others in a supportive social environment that provided all the vital experiences of childhood.

But for children with autism, these sorts of experiences come with great difficulty. When they could not find a school program appropriate for their son, Chan and Velasquez took the courageous step of founding one. The result is the Wings Learning Center of El Granada.

Wings opened its doors in El Granada in September 2001, with the goal of creating a supportive academic and therapeutic environment where children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder can learn the necessary social and communication skills to support full participation in family and community life. Students at Wings range in age from 3-10.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a neurological disorder whose cause is not fully understood. "The core deficit of autism," according to Andrew Shahan, social skills facilitator and outreach coordinator at Wings, "involves major challenges in communicating and relating socially. Specifically, people with autism have major difficulties interacting with other people. In particular, they find it hard to make eye contact, initiate reciprocal communication, and develop functional use of language." This makes it difficult for them to develop peer relationships and participate in play with peers.

At Wings, the staff tries to create an environment where the core challenges of autism are addressed head-on. Because what works for one student with autism may not work for another child with autism, the Wings experience requires many hours of one-on-one social interaction between teacher and student.
Students participate in a full-day class schedule Mondays through Thursdays; on Friday afternoons the staff schedules in-home visits to transfer skills to the home environment. These visits give parents an opportunity to get help with issues that arise for the child at home.

The Wings' curriculum focuses on:

• Individualized instruction in a contextual format using visual supports and structure.
• Implementing techniques from all disciplines throughout the day to continuously reinforce skills such as communication and interaction.
• A combination of one-to-one and small group instruction, with a maximum class size of six students.
• Mainstreaming and social play opportunities with non-autistic children from the community.

Reminding us that all children are unique, Shahan described a "typical Wings student," whom he called "Jack." "Jack spends a great deal of time playing with picture books— a normal activity for many 5-year-olds. The difference is that non-autistic kids tend to like books because of the social interaction that comes from those books. They like to have books read to them or involve themselves in stories.

"But to enjoy hearing a story, a child has to have a social context. An autistic child may not understand the purpose of books. Unlike other children, Jack sees books mostly as objects he can manipulate. Jack spends most of his time using books in a very idiosyncratic way. He engages in rituals with the books. He likes to stack them and organize them into different arrangements. His preference is to do this by himself," says Shahan.

The problem that autistic people have is that they don't have the knack for, or interest in, developing social skills. "We learn our first words by watching our parents and imitating them. We thrive on their attention and the reinforcement they give us when we master each little step. Autistic kids don't find social interaction reinforcing in the same way non-autistic kids do," says Shahan.

For example, a teacher might sit at a desk across from a student and repeatedly instruct the child to touch her nose. If she complied with the instruction, the teacher would smile and praise the student and the child might now know how to touch her nose when so instructed. But this approach does not generalize to the real world. You can teach an autistic kid to brush teeth. But unless you change the way they deal with the world, they have little reason to brush their teeth once they get out of school.

At Wings, the staff uses best practices to try to figure out the most effective way to teach students generalizable skills. According to Manuela Hipkins, Wings' director, "Each member of the staff communicates with others about each child in order to continuously assess what works and what doesn't."
"At Wings, we work hard to come up with teaching approaches that take into consideration the strengths and interests of the individual child and to use those interests to foster a wide range of new skills, including social skills. Children learn better when they are motivated and engaged and when the things they are interested in become the source of the interaction," observed Jaejin Lee, a classroom teacher at Wings.

How do you reach out to children who don't know they want to interact with you? Andrew Shahan gave us an example. "Soon after I met Jack, I realized that manipulating books was something that interested him. My job was to convert Jack's interaction with books into a more social activity. I started off by playfully inserting books into the stacks he was building. Jack found this intriguing and began to see how another person could make one of his favorite activities more exciting. I couldn't get inside his head to see what he was thinking, but when he started to make eye contact or laughed when I dropped a book I knew I had my foot in the door. At first, Jack did not care whether I was in the room with him or not. Now, we were working together to stack books; now he is connecting with me."

Students at Wings experience school days similar to those at other schools in that each day is broken down into a regular schedule of courses. The difference is that the core of each activity is to teach each individual child how to interact socially and how to make sense of the world. Based on need, each child receives a varying amount of individualized therapy.

Wings' services include:

Occupational Therapy
In occupational therapy, Wings students practice gross and fine motor skills such as how to grasp a toothbrush and the proper amount of pressure to put on the teeth. The occupational therapist also:

* Works on integrating sensory experiences to "ground" the students and enable them to pay attention during class activities.
* Instructs other team members on techniques to help each child, i.e. how to assist a child to cut paper or how to wash his or her hands or cut a sandwich.
* Shows the team what to do in the event a child becomes sluggish or over-excited during activities.

Circle Time
Circle time, says Jaejin Lee, is "how we get kids to interact when interacting is not what they would choose to do on their own accord." Each day at Wings starts with circle time, a time to share and talk about the day. Songs and music are used to warm the kids up and get them involved in interacting with each other.

Because the students love listening to music, Lee has adapted a program called Music Together, in which she is certified, for use with Wings students.

For example, one game Jack enjoys involves listening to a song about different animals. Lee has created hand motions that are different for each animal. When the class plays the verse about the owl, Lee holds her hands to her eyes making an owl. Jack has not only learned to imitate the motions the teacher models, but he has also begun to model the same motions to a new classmate— a promising beginning at social interaction among kids who would not spontaneously interact with each other.

Speech Therapy
Manuela Hipkins, Wings' director, is also a speech therapist. She observes that "Children with autism often have great difficulty understanding spoken language. That is why we use picture icons to help the child anticipate what is going to happen during the day. The visual channel is often a strong point for kids with autism, and we also use this skill to help kids who otherwise could not speak to communicate. In speech therapy, we combine a child's strengths with his or her weak spots and use a multi-modal-sensory approach to help kids understand language and its purpose of communication better. For example, the child might use pictures to make a sentence and give this sentence to a communication partner to express what is wanted. We work closely as a team so I know which skills I need to reinforce in speech therapy. That may mean that I spend my time on the floor with the child, on a swing, on a trampoline or on a jumping ball in order to have the child's best attention for learning, speaking or process

Integrated Playgroups
Students at Wings participate in Integrated Playgroups— playgroups in which autistic students play with non-autistic children, under supervision of an adult facilitator, three times a week. Integrated Playgroups help Wings students develop social and play skills. The facilitator helps the non-autistic children figure out how to engage the child with autism.
For example, says Shahan, "Jack likes to move balls one-by-one from one container to another. So, we might set up a pretend store and I might say, 'Look, Jack is getting the fruit from one shelf to another.' I might suggest that the other kids bring a shopping cart over to help Jack. The child who is the expert at playing (the non-autistic child) might then start putting the balls in the shopping cart. Now, instead of moving balls, we are stocking store shelves and Jack is now participating, playing and learning to use objects in more meaningful ways."

Bi-weekly Home Visits
Wings considers it vitally important to incorporate parents and family in students' learning processes. Because the program developed for each student is driven by each child's individual needs and skills, Wings' staff considers it important to demonstrate for families the techniques being used at the school so families can employ those same techniques with students when they are not in school. Wings' staff visits each student's home every other Friday to train families on these techniques.
Says Shahan, "Kids learn most when they are happy and engaged. That's just as true for kids who have difficulty socializing as kids who don't. At Wings we try to keep this fact always in mind."

Wings Learning Center is seeking families to become part of building their school. Wings is asking the coastside community for their support. Fund-raising efforts are on the way as they are a nonprofit organization and would like to provide access to their program for families with lesser means. Wings is in the process of applying for non-public school status.

Wings Learning Center is seeking new students for this school year and for their summer program, which is one of only a few programs for autistic students in the area that is open in the summer. Wings offers scholarships for which prospective students are encouraged to apply for assistance.
For more information, contact Wings Learning Center Inc. at 34 N. San Mateo Drive, San Mateo, CA 94401. Their phone number is 650-560-9688, and fax is 650-558-0719. The school is located at 130 Santa Anna Street in El Granada.

Joe Devlin and Emily Berk are principals in Armadillo Associates, a computer consulting firm based on the coast. Their website is http://www.armadillosoft.com.