Special Education

Communication As An Artform

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A painting done by Sesobel children. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: The sounds of children playing reverberated from almost every room at Sesobel, a school for children with disabilities.

At one point, a 13-year-old boy torpedoed into the play area on a bicycle and boisterously announced “I’m Gregory!” holding out his hand to a newcomer. Before the latter had the chance to return the introduction, the vivacious teenager had already lost interest and sped away on his three-wheeler.

“He’s one of the artists,” Mugay Moudawar, a specialized teacher at the school, turned to tell The Daily Star.

By most accounts Gregory’s behavior deviates from the norm of basic social interaction. However, an impaired ability to communicate is one of the hallmarks of autism, which often tests the patience of parents, therapists and sometimes, the specialized teachers at Sesobel.

While autistic children tend to perform poorly with basic verbal communication tasks, they often excel in visual and spatial tests. Through the special education program at Sesobel, autistic children are given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings through painting classes.

“These children are unable to [verbally] communicate their desires to other people,” explained Moudawar, “So in school at times they draw on the board what they feel, their fears, sorrows and joys. … These are all captured in the paintings.”

The finished products have not only granted parents and teachers a glimpse into their complex inner worlds, but now the general public can have this opportunity too as a collection of the children’s paintings are on display at the Phoenicia Hotel.

“We were the first school in Lebanon that dared to start a special program for autistic children,” said Sesobel’s President Fadia Safi, “because it’s very challenging, because every child with autism is unique.”

In 1989, after witnessing the trials of the mothers that were largely left without adequate resources to raise their autistic children, the school began a special education program for the preschool level. As the children grew into youths and then young adults, the school’s board realized it not only needed to build on the program, but construct another center to house its activities.

The proceeds collected from a silent auction of the children’s paintings will contribute to building this center.

“Autistic children and youth are real artists and they make really beautiful paintings, which will help them acquire the funds to build their new center,” Safi said.

As with many spectrum disorders, autism manifests through a triad of symptoms that include impaired social interactions and communication, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, such as head slapping and hand flapping, compulsive behavior and an obstinate and at times volatile resistance to change.

Most children show symptoms of the disorder before they reach 3 years of age. Neurologically, autism affects how information in the brain is processed, but how exactly this occurs is not entirely understood by scientists.

Depending on the gravity of the disorder, some who are mildly afflicted are able to integrate with society and even enjoy successful careers, but for moderate to severe cases of autism, most cannot live independently.

Given the challenges of having to engage with severely autistic children – let alone teach them how to communicate – the special education program at Sesobel adopts an adaptable approach that makes use of each child’s particular propensities, often by stimulating his or her heightened visual processing capabilities.

The teachers at Sesobel begin giving instruction around the preschool level. “We have to focus our efforts in improving their ability to express their needs, so we begin with actual objects,” said Moudawar.

To teach a child how to express thirst, for instance, Moudawar will place a glass of water on the table and, using gestures accompanied with simple language, will instruct the autistic child to show her the object whenever in need of a drink.

“In time we move on from objects to photos of the objects, then words that correspond to them … so the tasks become more and more complicated,” the teacher explained.

Because of the typical communicative barriers of the disorder, instructors said they have to be able to empathize with a child to understand their needs.

“A child with autism needs to feel secure at all times, because he is terrified of change,” Moudawar said, adding that this fear can be incited by simple habitual adjustments, from being instructed to stand up from a seated position to simple changes in the season.

“He needs to be prepared well before a change in his routine will occur. If he isn’t prepared in advance he will have an outburst.”

Sometimes these outbursts are resolved easily, once Moudawar explains what gave rise to the change with drawings. For instance, Moudawar recounts a time when a child once threw a fit because the teacher that normally handed out chocolate after a lesson was absent.

“So I took a piece of chalk and explained to him ‘Listen, the teacher is not here today, she is sleeping and the key to the chocolate box is with her,’ and I drew the key and put an ‘x’ through it, and he understood,” she said. Without this visual explanation, the outburst would have continued.

The upstairs room where the children sometimes spend hours on a single canvas shows signs of their furious creativity: A white table is splattered with paint in the art room, as are the chairs, walls and the floor. Piles of canvas are strewn on the ground along with brushes stiffened with remnants of acrylic paint, their tips thinned with overuse.

The hours the children spend on a single canvas is a rare investment, as most are unable concentrate for long in other activities.

On display in the room is a bright-red medium-sized painting of a geranium that itself contains a darker flower. On the right-hand corner is the signature, “Walid.” Only the large and wobbly handwriting gives away the artist’s young age.

Gregory’s subdued and intricate paintings, one of the many on display at the Phoenicia Hotel’s exhibition, show no sign of the energetic boy that had burst through the playground earlier. The discordant arrangement of colors in his work “Ulysses 1,” for instance, suggests an emotionally complicated inner world.

The children at times paint dark colors in a very narrow spaces on the canvas to express their anger, which sometimes leads to interventions from the supervisors.

“But sometimes they would invade the space of the canvas, with all kinds of colors. And that’s how we saw their joy,” said Moudawar.



The Holy Grail Of Autism: Searching For The Ever-Elusive ‘Thing’

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I began this venture 14 or 15 months ago, at the time I had no idea what a blog was, who wrote them or why.  I knew blogs existed in the periphery; since that time I have read hundreds, if not thousands of blog posts by many authors.  I am grateful for the insights and information, for both the light-hearted and serious nature of Autism blogs.  I hold in great esteem the parents of Autistic children, and those on the Spectrum themselves, who find the time to share their experiences and opinions.  This little hobby of mine was born with the notion that if I found something interesting or thought-provoking as a parent and advocate, there might be others who felt the same.  The posts about my son Mike. and his journey through life with Autism, is also a commentary about my life, my family members’ lives, and all those he encounters.

Every day I stand in awe of his burgeoning ability to communicate with others; he is verbal and has an expansive vocabulary, but his sharing of those words with others, through various media as well as interpersonal interaction is what grabs my attention and holds my appreciation.  Recently I have been telling his tales of computer prowess thanks to Nassau County PAL‘s Special Needs Unit.  To someone looking through that glass window that is on every college classroom door, it seems like he is any other kid learning a rudimentary electronic skill.  But it’s not; the things he is working on is a combination of his imagination and ideas which he translates to pictures, words, transitions and stories, with the help of the all-powerful Internet.  He takes these ideas incarnate and will transmit them electronically; learning to integrate his thoughts and ideas with methods of communication.  Part of what he is working on is some kind of presentation.  I have no idea what this presentation entails and I don’t want to spoil the spontaneity by knowing its details (aka, peek) before he’s ready to unveil it.  He so looks forward to this class and this project that it literally puts a bounce in his step.  When was the last time your autistic child looked forward to something? Even mundane, drawn-out activities like homework seems to go smoothly, sometimes even voluntarily done early rather than postponed till the last possible waking moment of the day.  No, its not the same as that reaction of the choice to play video games or doing math.  It is so much more than that.

It is a concept that changes an attitude.  It is a wholly visualized goal; one that he knows he can attain, yet attaining it doesn’t diminish it’s inherent value.  It is a window into his mind; how he sees his work, his passion, his worth.  It is a glimpse into what turns that switch on; a veritable springboard toward something greater that he can someday achieve.  That thing that gives him purpose, though short-lived as it is, is precious. That thing that makes us wonder what just happened, and what did you do with my work-averse kid.  It is that thing that we wish was present in every lesson and task, and in every interaction with everyone, ever.  It is that thing we seek: the Holy Grail of Autism: that fleeting, shining moment when we forget all about Autism and just are who we envision ourselves to be; life without the spectre of disability.

Many advocates may argue the term disability, preferring the term ‘differently-abled’ and I understand, but respectfully disagree with, that argument; my son is at a disadvantage when it comes to so many things because of autism, so the term ‘disability’ is not meant to be derogatory.  It is what it is.  But that’s a topic for another day. 


Part of the equation is recognizing that there is indeed a palpable difference between positive reinforcement and everything else.  Years ago, when Mike was in what someone might call a Special Ed class, that had no pedagogical identity, i.e., no idea how to teach Special Needs kids, the psychologist seriously wanted us to allow them to let Mike know that there were consequences to behaviors.  This same psychologist, at one point, also questioned Mike’s diagnosis of Autism/PDD-NOS and asked if he was ‘bipolar’.  My point is, autistic children are not immune to negative attitudes directed toward them, and predictably respond in kind.  Just like everyone else.  Little things like a high-five and verbal recognition of a job well done go a long way towards instilling a positive sense of self in our children.  Like neuro-typical children, many autistic children have the ability to distinguish between different paralinguistic cues, like tone and volume, in the words they hear and interpret.  This helps to re-set their emotional responses during a conversation or interaction; a harsh or angry tone is very likely to elicit a similar response from an autistic child, regardless of the actual words that were spoken.  Therefore a day, or week, or more of praise and positive reinforcement will yield immeasurable benefits in other areas of a child’s life.

Here’s the catch: we as parents have to be able to recognize this.  We have to be able to say, ‘well what do we have here?’ and figure out how to tease every ounce of this spark out of him, so that it touches more aspects of his life.  It is not just ‘he’s having a good day’; it is something we want to replicate as often as possible.  We also have a responsibility, I think, to share these lightbulb moments with others.  Despite the differences from one child to another, as parents we need to live vicariously.  We need the success, and to a lesser degree the failures as well, of others.  We need to see success stories, and learn to adapt them to our own situations.  We know, however, that we can’t possibly bottle that thing, and have it at the ready.  So we learn to enjoy those golden moments and try to share it with others by blogging or posting on Facebook, or other social media.

This is where I come back around to my point about autism bloggers and the phenomenal work being put out there by bloggers.  Wordpress, for example, has so many valuable posts by parents and advocates, not to mention other notable ASD-friendly sites like The Huffington Post, among others.

From this autism parent and blogger to all those others who write, provoke thought and inspire, I say “thank you”.  I look forward to your next post. -Ed

‘Strong Schools’ Aims For Smaller Classes Closer To Home To Complement Magnet School

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Parents in the autism program at St. Paul‘s Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School love the spring play starring each student. They love the teachers and the interactive whiteboards in each classroom.

When they heard some students might have to switch schools next fall under a district overhaul, they rallied to oppose the change at a recent school board meeting.

The district is applying the learning-closer-to-home philosophy of its Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan to programs for students with autism, behavioral disabilities and other special needs. Next year, smaller programs will serve students at more neighborhood schools. Officials say that approach will give kids a better chance at easing into mainstream classrooms.

Teaching assistant Anne Hall discusses a reading point with student Ayanle Mohamud during a class for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders who have autism.

“We’re trying to break with this sense that special education programs are entities unto themselves rather than integral parts of the schools,” said Matthew Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer.

But some parents argue there’s strength in numbers at larger programs like the one at Ben Mays. They wonder if the district is giving itself enough time to handle a major shift for students who often struggle with transitions.

Last month, some Ben Mays parents received two letters, both dated Jan. 7. The one from the special education department told parents their student would have to move to an as-yet-unknown school. The one from the student placement center said their student would have a spot at Ben Mays, which unlike many district schools will remain a citywide magnet next fall.

Last week, the district announced it would allow students in the Ben Mays autism program to finish elementary school there.


St. Paul has nine self-contained autism programs across its roughly 70 schools. Next year, there will be twice as many, but they’ll be smaller. They’ll have two or three classrooms at the most, compared with as many as five now at the Ben Mays program, which serves more than 40 students.

Nandi Crumble, a student in the autism program at St. Paul’s Benjamin Mays Elementary School, answers a question on animal studies Friday, February 1, 2013. 

The change is in keeping with the spirit of Strong Schools. Under the plan, most students will go to schools in their neighborhoods, except those attending magnet schools.

“We’re not talking about dismantling quality programs,” said Mohs. “We’re talking about replicating quality programs and doing it in a way that’s equitable across the district.”

Like regular education students, children with autism will follow set “pathways” from elementary to middle to high school; that will help the district prepare them better for each transition.

Special Education Director Elizabeth Keenan says large concentrations of students with intensive needs can overwhelm schools. In recent years, schools have striven to include such students more in mainstream classrooms and activities.

Smaller programs will mean they can do that more often without pushing up class sizes and risking disruption. According to Keenan, the changes will affect about 200 students next fall; 6,800 receive special education services in the district.


To Ben Mays parents, the changes could threaten a program that — in the district administration’s lexicon — they dub “a pocket of excellence.”

“This pocket is successful in large part because of its size,” Dave Silvester, the father of fourth-grade twins in the program, told the school board last month.

Thanks to its size, parents say, the program enjoys a full-time team of support specialists such as an occupational therapist. Alone among district autism programs, it has interactive whiteboards in each classroom.

Such technology makes it easier to engage students using several senses at once. On a recent morning in one Ben Mays classroom, students belted out multiplication problems to a high-energy rap tune as numbers flashed against a bright-pink screen.

Most important, parents feel the program’s size has made it a force to be reckoned with at the school, which has cultivated a unique culture of inclusion. Children with autism have breakfast and a morning meeting with their general education peers; they spend time in mainstream classrooms in clusters, which takes away some of the anxiety of traveling between rooms.

Norma Crumble told the school board her third-grade daughter struggled at a different school. In kindergarten, she hid under tables in the busy cafeteria. In first grade, she regularly disrupted her class.

Second-grader Adriana Morant, who has autism, gets help from teacher Joy Fehring as Adriana works on her writing skills at an interactive white board in the classroom at St. Paul’s Benjamin Mays Elementary School. 

She joined the Ben Mays program later that year, and within months, she stopped acting out.

“She has since grown into a little social butterfly,” Crumble said.


After about a dozen parents addressed the board, Superintendent Valeria Silva thanked them and told them the district plans to let their children stay put. Last week, it became official: The district will make an exception for Ben Mays, grandfathering current families.

“It’s a really special program,” Keenan said.

Families at other programs are nervous about the upcoming moves.

On the one hand, Gina Ruppert said she agrees the district needs more neighborhood special education programs. Her 13-year-old son spends more than an hour on a school bus from their Mac-Groveland neighborhood to the autism program at Washington Technology Magnet in the North End.

She started preparing her son for his earlier move to Washington in January — a transition that to children with autism can feel like “moving from the South Pole to the North Pole,” she said.

The district said it might be March before parents know where their students will go to school next year.

“It’s cruel they are making us wait until March,” said Ruppert, who also doesn’t know where her sixth-grade daughter in the Ben Mays autism program will go to school next year. “It’s agonizing.”

And Ben Mays parents like Michele Silvester worry about the future of that program if it shrinks with the departure of grandfathered families. She wonders: Can the district really tell families of kids with autism that they alone do not have the choice to enroll in a districtwide magnet?

Jan Ormasa, executive director of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, said districts across the state have to strike a delicate balance.

“We’re always trying to make sure we’re not overloading some schools,” she said. “When you have a smaller special education community, there are more opportunities for students to spend time in mainstream classrooms.”

Barbara Luskin, consulting psychologist at the Autism Society of Minnesota, said both the district’s arguments for change and the parents’ anxieties resonate with her. She said parents should be asking a lot of questions, such as: How will the district prepare students for the transition? How will it prepare the staff at schools with new programs to welcome students with more intensive special needs?

Mohs said the district plans to provide extensive staff training. It will work hard to foster Ben Mays’ culture of support for special education students across all schools.

“It’s ultimately about balance, and that’s hard to achieve,” he said. “There’s no perfect formula.”


Never Forget Sandy Hook Elementary School, Nor The Impact Of Dedicated Teachers

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Started at school 2 days before shooting; was to get engaged Christmas Eve

The stack of photographs, nearly a foot high, captures Rachel D’Avino in all her buoyant glory.

There she is, dark hair and broad smile, striking a silly pose in dress-up clothes, or thrusting her arm around her cousin, her big personality shining through every snapshot.

“She always stood out,” recalled her aunt, Christine Carmody. “She had the neatest sense of humor and would come up with the funnest stuff. She did everything to the max.”

Like the elaborate cakes she loved to bake for her friends and for her boyfriend, Tony Cerritelli, and the toga parties and ugly-sweater parties she used to organize.

D’Avino was a hugger with a flair for drama. As a kid, she would act out scenes from movies. Her passions were karate, photography and her menagerie of animals — she was drawn to dogs, frogs, bunnies, birds or anything else with scales, feathers or fur.

But behind the exuberance was unrelenting determination and a clear focus. D’Avino struggled with a learning disability in childhood, but she overcame it, said her aunt, and went on to earn advanced degrees. “She was very goal-oriented,” Carmody said. “If she said she was going to do something, it would get done. She got a lot of her drive from her mom.”

D’Avino was a behavioral therapist; she worked with children on the autism spectrum. “It wasn’t just a job,” Carmody said. “It was her life.”

At 29, and close to completing her education, D’Avino had recently landed a temporary job at Sandy Hook Elementary School, about a half-hour’s drive from her home in Bethlehem. She was supposed to start in early December, but she fell ill with the flu, Carmody said, so her start date was pushed back to Wednesday, Dec. 12.

That night, D’Avino and her fiancé went to their friend Lia Greenley’s house in New Britain. They decided to make a time capsule because, “well, it was 12-12-12 and it was a nerdy thing to do,” Greenley said.

D’Avino wrote a note to future Americans. It read, in part, “it is my DREAM that you know my name as a leader in behavior analysis for children and adults with autism. However, I will be thrilled if I make a few people have an easier, more enjoyable life.”

She signed the message Rachel Marie D’Avino, MS.

Two days later, a gunman shot his way into the school, killing her and five other educators, along with 20 children. D’Avino was so new that her name did not appear on any official school rosters.

Doing What She Was Meant To Do

D’Avino was born in Waterbury. Her mother, Mary, was one of 10 children from a large Irish-American family. Her father, Ralph, was Italian, and she felt a strong pull toward his heritage.

Even as a child, her aunt said, Rachel had a habit of talking with her hands. An accomplished cook, she loved making tomato sauce with her Italian grandmother. “She always identified as Italian until St. Patrick’s Day. Then the Irish part was talked about,” said Carmody, who has been informally designated the family spokeswoman.

D’Avino attended St. Margaret’s-McTernan School in Waterbury, where her kindergarten teacher, Marion Rose Bouffard, remembered her as “a wonderful little girl, very warm and very gentle.”

Bouffard said she was not surprised that D’Avino became a teacher. “She was a very giving little girl,” she said.

Even though she hadn’t seen D’Avino in almost 25 years, Bouffard was heartbroken when she realized that one of her former students was among those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. “When you’re a teacher,” Bouffard said, “those kids are your kids forever.”

That’s a sentiment that D’Avino understood. Her job working with autistic children was a demanding one, but it didn’t end when the bell rang and classes were over. D’Avino was known for visiting her pupils after school and on weekends, pulling out all the stops to reach children for whom emotional connections don’t come easy.

Lissa Lovetere Stone met D’Avino about six years ago; the circumstances were less than optimal. Lovetere Stone’s son, 3 at the time, had just been diagnosed with autism and he was assigned a young aide who only recently had graduated from college.

“We were brand new to autism and I walked into the school with Andrew and he’s having a fit,” Lovetere Stone recalled. “He’s so uncomfortable and everyone’s looking at him and I’m dying on the inside.”

D’Avino, the ink on her psychology degree from the University of Hartford barely dry, approached the boy. “She just had this huge smile on her face,” Lovetere Stone said. D’Avino waited patiently for Lovetere Stone’s son to grow accustomed to his surroundings and, eventually, he did.

The encounter was the beginning of a close bond between D’Avino and Lovetere Stone’s family. Long after the school day was over, and long after D’Avino had moved on to other jobs, she would visit the boy. They would bake together or do a craft project, Lovetere Stone said.

The entire family grew to trust her. When Lovetere Stone and her husband needed a break, D’Avino would come over for the weekend to watch the kids and the dogs.

D’Avino’s last visit to the Lovetere Stone house was around Halloween, when she came to decorate pumpkins with the kids. She spoke of returning during the Christmas break.

“She had a level of patience and understanding most of us do not possess,” Lovetere Stone said. “It was something she was born with. Although she was never a mom herself, she taught me more about being a mom to a child with special needs than anyone else. She was just so comfortable with kids who weren’t typical … so calm and accepting of them.”

‘Stunning Young Professional’

From an early age, D’Avino had a vision. “She spoke about working with kids when she was a just a kid,” Carmody said. “I remember her as a young teen saying she wanted to be a psychologist. She was probably 11 or 12 at the time.”

D’Avino and her two younger sisters, Sarah and Hannah, grew up in rural Bethlehem, a town of about 3,000 nestled in the foothills of Litchfield County.

She graduated from Nonnewaug High School in 2001 and enrolled at the University of Hartford, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, and Post University, where she received her master’s. At the time of her death, D’Avino was living at home in Bethlehem and had completed all her course work for a graduate certificate in applied behavioral analysis from the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.

D’Avino “was remarkable, energetic, and engaging,” Deirdre Fitzgerald, associate professor of behavioral science and psychology at the University of St. Joseph, said in an email sent to the campus community. “She was a leading force. … She just sparkled with ideas and potential. Rachel was a stunning young professional. We, and the world, will feel her loss.”

Just two weeks before her death, D’Avino posted on Facebook that she was finally done with school. “About 10 of us wrote her and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before,”’ Lovetere Stone said. “She was always trying to learn more and be better at what she did.”

Yet there was a sense that D’Avino was on the cusp of a new chapter. In addition to finishing the requirements for her graduate certificate, she was looking toward the future with her boyfriend. Cerritelli was planning to propose on Christmas Eve.

Instead, the wedding ring he had planned to present to her, a ring that had belonged to D’Avino’s grandmother, was placed on her finger before she was buried.

On Christmas Day, instead of celebrating her engagement, D’Avino’s family acknowledged her absence from the dinner table by placing a sock monkey in her chair and a photograph of her on her empty plate.


Schools Must Pay For Special Education Evaluations

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As a parent of who has had my share of battles with my school district’s Dept. of Special Education, I have come away with 3 take-home messages that I take with me every time an IEP meeting comes up:

1. The director of a Special Education Dept. is the person who has the least amount of knowledge of how my son thinks, acts, and is capable of achieving.  

2. Whenever possible and if left without opposition, school districts tend to follow the course that causes them to spend the least amount of money to properly educate my child.  

3. I am ultimately responsible for understanding my child’s IEP including the methods used by the district/teachers, and the state and federal laws that govern a child’s right to FAPE.  

So what does this mean? It means not only do I have to know my child, I have to know what the teachers are doing (right or wrong), I have to know what resources are currently available to me as a parent, what my child is legally entitled to under the law and finally, what options above and beyond the school’s purview are better for my child.  I need to know the whole ball of wax.  

To make a long story short, shortly after my son entered in-district Kindergarten from an ABA-based Pre-K, we knew the district’s methodology (TEACHH) was not a good fit for him.  Moreover, the district did not have a formal plan or experience teaching autistic children.  For many years, Mike wound up stuck in a system that not only undid all that he learned previously, but tried to teach him in an ineffective manner; behaviors naturally escalated.  We had to fight for formal BC/BA evaluations and were subjected to off-the-cuff comments suggesting psychiatric disorders as the underlying cause of behavioral outbursts.  We had to fight for, and sometimes provide, TouchMath books that helped him immensely.  We had to fight for a 1:1 aide during school.  It took years to get a psychologist trained in ASD to coordinate an educational plan and related services.  When we decided that Mike would thrive in an out-of-district placement that was ABA-based, we needed to bring an attorney to our CSE meeting to show how committed we were to that goal.  When the time came for his triennial evaluations, they were incomplete; the district still tried to make recommendations based on them, but we saw this as that avenue to have Mike assessed properly by properly trained clinicians.  When the district relented, and approved an evaluation by the Hofstra University Diagnostic and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, those clinicians eventually found in Mike was what we, as his parents always knew: that he had an intelligence that needed to be harnessed and focused in an appropriate setting.  

The rest, as they say, is history.  Sometimes you have to be a real pain in the ass, but it is sooo worth it.-Ed


School districts should reimburse parents for independent educational evaluations of students with disabilities, at least in some cases, a federal court is affirming.

Though the U.S. Department of Education has long indicated that parents have the right to an independent opinion at public expense under certain circumstance, the Jefferson County Board of Education in Alabama challenged the rule. The school district declined to reimburse parents named in court papers as Philip and Angie C. after they sought an outside evaluation when they disagreed with the district’s assessment of their child, A.C.

The Jefferson County Schools argued that paying for parent-solicited evaluations goes beyond the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act because the long-standing federal law does not specifically mandate it.

But last week a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found “no merit” to the school district’s argument.

“The regulation at issue here is valid so long as public financing of a parent’s IEE is consistent with the intent of Congress in enacting the IDEA,” the judges wrote in their opinion.

The court ruling notes that federal lawmakers have reauthorized the IDEA numerous times without taking away the right to a taxpayer-financed independent evaluation, which the Education Department implemented in the early days of the IDEA.


Doug Flutie Scores With “The Social Express” For Autism Classes

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he Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism Partners with The Social Express

The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism and The Social Express are partnering to donate computers and interactive social learning skills programs to schools with Autism classes.

The Social Express™, creators of new interactive social skills programs for special needs children, has partnered with The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism and donated copies of its program to schools who teach children with autism.

“We’re very proud to donate The Social Express learning program to The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism,” said Marc Zimmerman, CEO and Founder of The Language Express. “After using our program, teachers tell us that students are extremely receptive to its social skills lessons like ‘talking about what others like to talk about’ and ‘being part of the group’. Many ask to use the program everyday.“

Zimmerman added, “Educator feedback also tells us that The Social Express characters engage students so well, they’re able to begin learning tough social concepts. We’re excited to share the program with more schools!”

The importance of technology to enhance children’s learning in the classroom is widely accepted. For children with autism, laptop computers are especially helpful but are out of reach for many schools with autism specific classrooms.

The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism has long recognized this fact. In 2000 the Laurie Flutie Computer Initiative was created for the purpose of donating computers to underprivileged families of individuals living with autism as well as to schools with autism-specific classrooms.

Chris Chirco, Program Director at the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, stated that, “The Flutie Foundation is excited to partner with The Social Express. Computer technology has become a key component in the education of many individuals with autism spectrum disorders and The Social Express offers a very visually stimulating and engaging interface that is sure to appeal to children on the autism spectrum. Learning social skills can be critical for an individual with autism to succeed independently.”

Computers are given to schools with autism-specific classrooms that could not otherwise afford to purchase them. To date the foundation has distributed close to 500 computers to families and schools in New York and New England.

In its initial phase, The Social Express is a 16-lesson interactive video-modeling social skills learning program. Parents, professionals, and educators of special needs children like the high-quality, Hollywood-style animation that holds their attention without over stimulation and the scenes that reinforce the best choices for kids to make in social situations.

Children with autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, and other social-emotional deficits find the characters engaging and many ask to use it every day. Learn more about The Social Express by visiting the website: http://thesocialexpress.com/ 

About The Language Express, Inc.:

The Language Express™, founded by parents of autistic twins in 2008, is a privately held company based in Encinitas, California. The company develops The Social Express™ and other interactive social skills software and learning management systems. The company’s mission is to help special needs children with social-emotional deficits to improve their lives. The company’s video modeling social skills learning programs help children with ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s, and related disorders to improve their interactions with others. Visit the company at http://thesocialexpress.com/ 

About The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism:

The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, Inc. was established in 1998 by Doug Flutie and his wife, Laurie, in honor of their 20 year old son, Doug, Jr. who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. The Flutie Foundation’s mission is to support families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Foundation is committed to increasing awareness of the challenges of living with autism and helping families find resources to help address those challenges. We provide individuals with autism and their families an opportunity to improve their quality of life by funding educational, therapeutic, recreational and advocacy programs. For more information on The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, please contact Maria Baez at the Ebben Zall Group at (781) 449-3244, or visit http://www.flutiefoundation.org.


Autistic Students Sizzle With Vizzle

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Four coins appeared in a box on a computer screen. Hans Glocker, a Sanford middle school student with autism, calculated the coins’ total, then chose the right value out of three listed. A cascade of bubbles appeared on the screen, making plinking sounds as they popped. The special education teachers in the room ooooohed.

“That is a great motivator,” said Hans’ teacher Janet Macdonald. “You don’t know how many students love the bubble thing.”

The coin activity looked like any ordinary computer math game, but its images, sounds and reinforcers make academic content accessible to a kid like Hans in a way a pen and paper never will be.

“I can’t stand up here and teach from a textbook,” said MacDonald. “I would lose everybody in about ten minutes.

SMART boards, iPads and other techy devices are creeping into classrooms around Minnesota. While some argue that tech-heavy teaching is the future, others question whether technology actually adds value to instruction. Some wonder if the investment required to buy technology is balanced by academic gains in students.

In Minneapolis, teachers and administrators are calling a program named Vizzle an example of how technology can revolutionize special education classrooms. The process the district went through to train teachers on the software is an example of how much commitment it takes to make technology work.

District autism program facilitator Kathy Healy, Sanford middle school autism teacher Janet MacDonald, and her student Hans described their experience with Vizzle at the Closing the Gap assistive technology conference in Bloomington Wednesday.

What it is

Vizzle is visual learning software. It allows teachers to create lessons incorporating sounds and images that keep the attention of students with autism, who may be easily distracted or who struggle to comprehend lessons delivered by traditional means. In Minneapolis, students with developmental and cognitive disabilities also use the program.

MacDonald is able to modify a single activity to meet the needs of her seven students who have varying levels of autism. For students who get distracted by red “x’s,” she gets rid of the red. For students who need a familiar voice to guide them through an activity, MacDonald can replace a computerized voice with her own.

Cloud technology allows the program to work on any device. Teachers can access a library of lessons created by other teachers from around the country. Likewise, parents can access lessons and activities at home. Teachers communicate with parents via a messaging system.

In an age where data is the supreme decision-maker, one of Vizzle’s most attractive selling points is that it tracks students’ progress on lessons. An ascending green line tells Hans’ parents and his teacher that he is making steady growth.

No implementation without support

Last fall 10 Minneapolis teachers ran a trial with Vizzle, paid for by a one-year grant from its parent company Monarch Teaching Technology. Positive reviews convinced the district to invest in licenses for 80 teachers to use the program for three years.

“We’re totally blown away by [Vizzle],” said Healy.

Healy was conscious of potential pitfalls with the new program. She knew teachers were tired of short-term initiatives backed by half-hearted trainings and flimsy support systems from the district. She set out to build robust reinforcements for Vizzle.

After an all-day Saturday training, the district began hosting “Thursdays with Vizzle” every week. Teachers share what they’re doing with the program, and the district describes ways that Vizzle can be used in various subject areas.

The district encouraged MacDonald to work on Vizzle with her Professional Learning Community, which is a group of teachers organized by common goals who meet regularly to collaborate on their work.

The steady feedback kept teachers using the program.

Facilitating independence

During morning meetings, MacDonald sometimes shows a Vizzle lesson about bus safety. An image on the screen shows a boy buckling his seat belt. The image reinforces a lesson that Hans is working on right now. Remembering to buckle his own seat belt is a step towards Hans being able to look after his own safety.

Now Hans can work independently on schoolwork while his parents make dinner. It gives them a break from having to monitor him constantly.

“It’s really hard for some students to do something totally independently,” said MacDonald. “I think [Vizzle] has helped Hans grow in his maturity.”