In Sharon McLaughlin's classroom at Tukes Valley Middle School, a cozy corner is set up with a rocking chair and mats for students to lay on when they need a break. There is also a work station and a cooking station. The designated stations conform to a systematic approach that makes learning easier for students who have autism.
Battle Ground Public Schools serves 103 students who have been identified as autistic. Autism is the general term for a group of brain development disorders that may be caused by rare gene changes or mutations, environmental factors and autism risk genes. People affected by autism experience struggle with social interaction and communication. The district assists students with autism by enhancing their communicative, social, emotional, coping and imaginative skills with a goal of helping them to achieve their independence. Assistance ranges from special care and parent-teacher consult to full-time placement into a classroom devoted to meeting their needs.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Schools in the district observed the occasion with different events, including a day earlier this month during which students at Captain Strong Primary wore blue for "Light it Up Blue" World Autism Awareness Day.
As an undergraduate at Central Washington University, Sharon student taught at CO Sorenson, a school in Woodinville that provides services for people ages birth to 21. At the school, McLaughlin found herself drawn to a student who experiences Autism. "I was fascinated with her and the way she moved in the world," she said. "I was hooked!"
Since the beginning of her career, McLaughlin has seen the incidence of autism increase from 1 in 10,000 people to 1 in 68. As an educational support teacher who serves students with special needs, McLaughlin is attuned to autism and how to address and approach it in ways that are beneficial to her students. She takes a personal approach to instructing her students, encouraging individuality and independence through unique educational plans. She uses Evidence-Based Practices, which integrate clinical expertise, scientific evidence, and client/patient/caregiver perspectives to provide high-quality and personal services. Denny Waters, Executive Director of Special Services, is especially appreciative of McLaughlin's knowledge and expertise, "She is an amazing teacher," he said. "We are lucky to have her here in the district."
The assignments that McLaughlin gives her students are systematic to encourage independence. Students might copy the teacher's instructions to practice handwriting or match cooking directions to specific images during a cooking lesson. Students keep track of what task they are on by moving a clothespin with their name on it to a paper with a label that matches their task. The byproduct and benefit of these assignments is that students are engaging in important skills such as writing, cooking and managing their own schedules.
Students also have individualized education programs (IEPs). When one student with autism gets frustrated during a lesson, for example, McLaughlin has cones set up in the hall for walking and counting laps. When that same student successfully completes a certain amount of group work--a task that he finds uncomfortable at times--he marks the work completed on a chart so that he may have time on the computer--a task he enjoys. "The benefit of an individualized learning plan is independence," McLaughlin said. "It helps kids with lifelong goals and improves their quality of life. It benefits them, their families and their communities by teaching students to rely on a system rather than a person. When our students graduate from public schools, they no longer have the high degree of support that we provide. It is critical students learn to be as independent as possible while in school, so these skills transition to the rest of their lives."
Using a visual schedule, writing down expectations instead of just saying them helps the student's flexibility and communication. Teaching students how to be in groups, make friends, and respond when the teacher asks a question assists in growing their social skills. "If you teach the student a system, using visual and physical structure, they can do any work presented to them," McLaughlin said. "It almost seems like magic! It works!"