“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.
“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.
“If you’ve met one child with autism, well, you’ve met one child with autism,” says Linda Brandenberg, the Institute’s director of school autism services.
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.
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.
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 (individualized education plan) goals,” Brandenburg says.
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, principalof 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.
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.
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.
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.”
And 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.