One Child with Autism: Why A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Doesn't Work in Autism Education

January 28, 2009
Justin with His Sister

A Day at the Aquarium

"Mom, Lauren pinched me," Justin calls back to his mother. He and his little sister, Lauren, are walking arm in arm through Baltimore's Inner Harbor on their way to the National Aquarium. Just over a year ago, this trip might not have been possible. Justin has autism, and he had a hard time doing anything outside of his established routine. His family had an extremely hard time taking him places and doing things as a family because of his behaviors.

"Every transition was a fight," says Mary Beth. Justin would come home from school angry and frustrated. When his mom said it was time to do his homework, he would have tantrums and outbursts that scared his family.

School was no exception. Justin was attending a learning center program in the Montgomery County Public School system. Unfortunately, he would age out soon, and his parents knew he wouldn't be able to succeed in most schools because of his intense needs. A public school simply would not have the resources to give Justin what he needed.

"They just really didn't have an option for him," Mary Beth says.

Determined to help their son, they began a search that led them to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and after just one year, Mary Beth says Justin is almost a completely different person.

"Before, Mike and I always had to be on our toes," she says. "One year at Kennedy Krieger and it's amazing how well he's doing."

What exactly about the new school has made such a difference? That question doesn't have just one simple answer, because the right approach, much like autism itself, is complex and unique to every child.

One Diagnosis? One Approach?

"The foremost challenge lies in the complicated nature of the diagnosis itself," explains Linda Brandenburg, the Institute's director of school autism services. Autism is a complex social communication disorder affecting one in every 150 children in a variety of different ways-yet its causes and treatments are not fully understood. People with autism typically have communication, behavioral, social, and cognitive deficits. Parents are usually the first to notice the signs of autism. Their child may not respond to other people or they may focus on one object or activity for long periods of time. In some cases, a typically developing toddler who was babbling and engaging with other people will suddenly regress and become silent, withdrawn, and, in some cases, even self-abusive.

Brandenburg explains that because autism is a spectrum disorder, there are individuals who are going to be at the low, intensive end of the spectrum who need help with daily living skills, things like toileting. And on the other end of the spectrum there are kids who are very intelligent and who seem so typical that people place higher expectations on them, even though they still need significant help with social communication.

"If you've met one child with autism, well, you've met one child with autism," she says.

Brandenburg also points out that in addition to overcoming these unique barriers, schools must also meet all established federal and state guidelines for education, requiring teachers to base their classes on the general education curriculum that was developed for every student in the country-regardless of their abilities.

"The curriculum, policies, and procedures are requirements we must meet, right down to the number of hours a child must be in the school building," says Brandenburg.

But for students with autism, like Justin, those requirements can actually be more harmful than helpful, as they are forced through a system that was designed for children without autism spectrum disorders.

Justin with His TeacherOne important step that the nation's education system took to ensure that children with special needs are getting the proper level of instruction is to mandate that those children have an individualized education plan (IEP) in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

With all these conflicts and challenges, how can schools hope to successfully educate kids with autism? It's a balancing act of attention to external requirements, knowing and understanding each student, and individualizing absolutely everything.

"At Kennedy Krieger, our team works diligently to blend together the curriculum, the core deficits of the disability, and then the student's specific IEP goals," Brandenburg says.

Strategies for Success

Because many of the students don't know how to tell anyone what they need, they will often act out to get what they want, much like Justin did when his mom told him to do his homework. This inability to communicate, explains Amy Knecht, principal of the Montgomery County School, is the number one challenge in the classroom.

"We've got to give the students a voice to express their wants and needs. Once we do, their behavior improves and they are less frustrated," says Knecht.

Making sure that students' sensory needs are met is also a huge part of helping them learn. We all use sensory processing to relate to our surroundings. Whether it's chewing on our pens, twirling our hair, or bouncing our knees, these sensory behaviors are an expression of a deeper psychological need. But kids who have autism can't identify what sensory input they need, much less how to regulate it.

"The hardest thing about educating Justin is keeping him interested," says Mary Beth. "If they lose his interest, they have to add a sensory component."

Justin's teacher, Joanna Ingham, uses a variety of strategies to keep Justin engaged, particularly those that involve sensory input, carefully selecting tools and aids with him in mind. She pairs words with images, engaging him visually to help him understand the meaning. Justin also uses a computer with an interactive chalkboard that allows him to really get involved in his learning. She knows that Justin loves dinosaurs and history, so she gives him books to read on those subjects. She's careful to encourage positive behavior by rewarding him for a job well done. And when he meets his goals in the classroom, he gets a short break to play with a toy.

"During these breaks, he's able to spend his time to himself," Joanna says. "Then he's ready for listening and learning again."

Bringing It All Together

All these small pieces add up to a successful education plan. It's hard work, and it demands an incredible amount of creativity and passion from the teachers. Throughout the day they are constantly adapting on a moment's notice to changes in the classroom and each student's mood.

"Teaching kids with autism is like a dance," says Knecht, "and part of the dance is knowing where you're going and where you came from."

It's that understanding that makes school programs successful. The dedicated faculty and staff are bringing all the pieces together to help the students not just get by but truly succeed.

Brandenburg also credits the full extent of Kennedy Krieger, beyond its education component, with the success of the school programs.

"One of the things that makes our Kennedy Krieger school programs even more successful is that we're attached to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a hospital and research center that is world-renowned," she says. "I can easily pick up the phone and get an expert opinion from one of my colleagues."

Justin with His TeacherAnd for Justin and his family, the way Kennedy Krieger brings it all together has made a world of difference. And that's why Mary Beth just smiles as Justin and Lauren have such a typical brother and sister quarrel. Because without Kennedy Krieger, that simple childhood moment wouldn't be possible.

"Now Justin never gets to that point where he can't turn back," says Mary Beth. "He feels good here, and he's getting what he needs. They've truly given him the opportunity to learn."

Bradley L. Schlaggar, M.D., Ph.D., Named President and CEO of Kennedy Krieger Institute

We’re thrilled to welcome Bradley L. Schlaggar, M.D., Ph.D., to the Kennedy Krieger family as our next President and CEO.

Learn more.


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