Shelly Saunders, supervisor of Alternative Functional Living Skills (FLS) at Pathways, explains that at least 90 percent of students in the program have autism spectrum disorder.
“Within that disorder come significant difficulties with behavior, communication, and social interaction,” says Shelly. “It becomes very frustrating for students to get their needs met. This program is designed to work on these issues - to build social interaction skills, to teach students how to positively manage their own behaviors and how to communicate their wants and needs.”
Staff support positive behavior
Students who qualify for MESD’s regular FLS services have multiple disabilities, learning difficulties, and little or no facility with language. In addition, Alternative FLS students require an especially high level of staff support for positive behavior and sensory integration (processing internal cues from the five senses, motion, and position). This means that an educational assistant stays with each student at all times. Sometimes others step in to help. Since all are busy with their own students, focused response becomes an exacting dance.
“You have to be constantly aware of not just your own kid, but everything going on in the room,” says Chris Carr, one of several education assistants in teacher Mary Sechrist’s Room 218. “Things can change in a heartbeat. We give the children as much independence as they need, we’re not helping with every move, but we’re there in the background making it run smoothly. And they understand it - they know what they’re supposed to do.” Key to all of this is intense individual support for communication - something for which Chris and her teaching partner of 13 years, Karen Brice, have a remarkable gift.
“They have an ability to read students’ behavior and emotions that’s very rare,” says Shelly. “They’re proactive in meeting students’ needs - and they’re never satisfied with the status quo. They’re always looking for the best ways to help each kid.” When their efforts fall short, they don’t let it slow them down by taking it personally. “They understand that nobody has all the answers,” Shelly says. “If something doesn’t work, I know they’ll be in my office, talking to Mary, doing whatever they can to make it better.”
An intuitive sense for what works best
Mary Sechrist, who has teamed with Karen and Chris for the past five years, agrees that this persistence is what sets the two apart. All three express what teachers in this particularly demanding field reliably report, that the challenge of figuring out what works is their strongest motivation, along with the pleasures of witnessing progress.
“What other students learn in two weeks can take ours two years,” says Chris. “If you didn’t know how they were before, you wouldn’t see how far they’ve come. Every one of them is a different puzzle. Our job is not boring, it’s exciting. Every day, something new arises - little glimmers of breakthroughs, small steps turning into bigger steps. That’s what keeps us going. We know they can learn, every single one of them, something, somehow. When you think where they started, they’re learning by leaps and bounds.”
Karen notes that each of the highly structured activities in the class has a dual purpose. “What looks like play is not just playing. We’re teaching them impulse control and focus, helping them organize their thoughts. When they come to us, they’re at the end of their rope. We’re seeing the end of that rope and giving them a new way to communicate, to express themselves and get what they need.”
She adds, “The secret to success in teaching these kids is to keep your expectations low. When you do that, then you can achieve, attain - you’re inspired.”
She encourages anyone unfamiliar with her students to imagine being set down in a foreign country. “You don’t know the language. You have nothing, no ID, no way to say who you are, what you want. When you try, you get blank looks. That’s what’s it’s like for these guys.”
Karen and Chris both provide respite care for their students and others with similar needs. They describe one student, now a teenager, whom they’ve worked with since she was a young child.
“She used to be non-verbal, screaming, having 40-minute hissies,” says Karen. “Now she comes to my house and goes straight for the computer and starts surfing. She goes to her bathroom and gets out her box with all her stuff in it and does her grooming. She reads words. She never stops learning. It’s the same for anybody. Who gets to say when you stop learning? The opportunity for learning is always there.”