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How We Can Support Students on the Autism Spectrum

On a recent trip to Disney World with my family, I had the pleasure of watching artist Stephen Fishwick create a painting of Goofy. While darting around his easel, flinging paint at the canvas, Stephen shared his history of growing up with developmental disabilities. What he had to say seemed to me to be a message worth sharing during Autism Awareness Month.

Like far too many individuals on the autism spectrum, or those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), Stephen was told he was “stupid” and that he “wouldn’t cut it” when he was just a child in elementary school. In fourth grade, a teacher went so far as to erect a wall of cardboard boxes around him in an effort to prevent him from distracting other students. Stephen had the last word, though. Or more aptly, he had the last picture: at the end of the school year, the boxes were covered with intricate artwork.

In high school, a supportive teacher helped to channel that talent by encouraging Stephen to go to art school. And that changed the course of his life forever. Want proof? Consider this: the painting of Goofy that I watched him create — and which only took him 10 minutes to complete — sold for nearly $2,000. How’s that for not cutting it?

Stephen’s story resonated deeply with me. I lead an organization serving children and adults with autism and other complex behavioral health challenges. While many of our clients are not able to live independently, and few will have the opportunity to become celebrated artists, their stories often have themes similar to Stephen’s. His words are a reminder that no student should ever be considered a “lost cause.” No matter what a person’s challenge, whether autism or developmental disabilities, they can make remarkable progress when given the right supports and encouragement. At the moment, however, our public education system is struggling to provide these tools.

What happens when a child’s needs can’t be met in a mainstream or even special education classroom? Without the resources to accommodate and nurture them, we are failing the growing population of autistic children in our country.

There are signs that we are headed in the right direction. In 2017, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County reconfirmed that public schools have an obligation under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act to provide more than the bare minimum to students with autism and other developmental challenges. Two parents filed the case on behalf of their autistic child who was given the exact same goals and objectives each year and making no discernible progress. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

I couldn’t agree more. But how do we do this? The answer isn’t simple; the Endrew outcome has created additional complexity in terms of the advancement criteria for these children.

My organization, Grafton Integrated Health Network, has spent the last six decades serving individuals on the autism spectrum. With this long history to draw from, I believe we have lessons that may be of use in a post-Endrew environment. Here are a few things I would encourage states, schools and communities to bear in mind as we strive for progress:

  • Look at existing models. For the past 20 years, Virginia has created an environment recognizing the needs of individuals with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities. The state blends funding from a variety of sources (educational, behavioral health, and local funds, among others) into comprehensive systems of care to support people, regardless of their particular diagnostic label. With the Endrew ruling, other states would benefit from implementing a similar system.
  • Consider what “success” looks like. For individuals with autism, establishing goals and measuring success can be complex. As the Endrew case rightly determined, assessing what and how much a student can achieve must be done on a highly individualized basis. Setting appropriate long- and short-term goals creates momentum for progress. At Grafton, the goals set for clients are tailored to their unique abilities. This can be as simple as washing their hands or as complex as securing a job. Like Stephen Fishwick’s early artistic endeavors, we also focus on what each student enjoys doing, building plans around their individual strengths. We believe kids learn best when learning is based around their own affinities and interests. Most importantly, we know this approach works — we have seen an 80 percent success rate in the goal mastery of our clients across the entire organization.
  • Use a trauma-informed approach. Children with disabilities — particularly those with intellectual disabilities, behavioral problems, and communication or sensory related disabilities — are disproportionately secluded and restrained in classroom settings. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, students with disabilities comprise two-thirds of the 277,000 children who are secluded from their classmates or restrained annually, despite representing only 12 percent of the overall student population. Yet behavioral research indicates that these techniques are not only ineffective, but that they can cause, reinforce and maintain aggression and violence. At Grafton, despite working with clients who have significant challenges — many of whom also have complex, co-occurring diagnoses — we are 99.8 percent restraint free and have eliminated seclusion entirely. After more than a dozen years of hard work to minimize the use of restraint and seclusion, our data shows that this keeps everyone (clients and staff) safe and improves outcomes.

These suggestions are only the starting point for an important conversation that needs to continue. The challenge is complex, but it is one we must solve.

April is Autism Awareness Month, but awareness alone is not enough. We must enable children to learn so that they are able to live a meaningful life. Whether that means becoming a successful artist or simply learning to dress and eat independently, society will be better for it.

Getty image by WeeDezign.