Friday, August 17, 2007

School, TEAACH and ABA

I just received the packet from Gus's school for September. apparently he's getting a new teacher. I can't help but to feel slightly disappointed - his teacher last year was amazing. I'm sure it will be fine, but ever since his first school experience, which was an awful one, I'm always nervous about changes. Yes, I need to get over it - most kids get a new teacher each year. All I can say is I'm working on it.

When Gus started Early Intervention at two and a half, he got into one of the most sought after programs in our county at the time. They used the TEAACH (Training and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) method, which I found to be preferable to ABA. (Applied Behavioral Analysis.) I was dead set against ABA because of awful stories I'd heard about it: children being physically forced to sit in chairs, children being tormented with the very substances that they had aversions to...the stories made my skin crawl. So I tried the TEAACH school; they were supposed to have loads of experience in dealing my son's particular needs, especially since he was very high functioning.

It was a miserable eight months. The method was not the problem, but the school was. The teacher (in her first job, first year) could not manage the different issues and needs of her class of ten. So they got the teacher some support. Since she was having such trouble just getting through the day, communication was often sacrificed, so I often didn't know what was going on during the day unless Gus had trouble, then I would get a note. There were enough notes for me to become concerned, and I started popping into school (which was permitted by this particular school) unannounced, with my infant in tow. On many occasions, I would observe Gus through the window of the classroom door crying or having some kind of meltdown. He had no idea I was there, so they couldn't say that I was setting him off.

I can't tell you how many times the teacher, or later one particular administrator, would say things like, "I don't know what's wrong with him," or "Why is he doing this?" Are you kidding me? I would think, "You're supposed to be the experts!"

It upset me most because I could easily see what was making him tantrum. Gus can't handle other people, especially children who tend to be very high pitched, crying. There was a little boy in the class who made Gus look positively lethargic by comparison, and would often have his own tantrums. When the little boy started to lose it, Gus would lose it shortly afterwards. Another behavior that seemed to upset the school a great deal was that Gus tends to moan or hum when he eats. It's just something he does - who cares? Do I worry that some kid is going to harass him for it when he's older? Yes. But quite frankly, it's not something that keeps me up at night; there are much more important things for me to worry about - like the fact that Gus used to (and occasionally still does) wander off. Yeah, the school lost him one day. And the best part is, they didn't tell me until about a month later. He wasn't at the school much longer after I learned that little tidbit. He wandered into another classroom, and his teacher didn't even notice.

New teachers scare me. They don't know Gus, and sometimes that can be a danger. I won't worry too much right now because I'm fairly certain that at least one of his old aides will still be around and they know him well enough.

Incidentally, after the school from hell, Gus was given an at-home speech teacher from an ABA program. I only agreed to try her approach because I'd met her and liked her very much. She accomplished within a week what the school hadn't managed in months. Her first concern was the safety issue, so she worked with him on staying with us when we were outside and not running off. A second teacher was brought in also, and that summer we saw some lovely progress in Gus's staying with us, in his play skills and in his communication. They were incredibly supportive, and they loved him. And the ABA method was working - no horror stories here. We were even able to start working on potty training. By the end of the summer, we got Gus into the home-therapist's school and he spent two very happy years there.

Ironically, the TEAACH method is the basis for his current school program, and Gus does beautifully with it. He thrives when he's got a schedule and knows what's coming next, he focuses much better when he's got a small visual space to concern himself with (his 'office') and he gets just the amount of social interaction that he can manage. Last year he did performances onstage, and was able to go on three field trips - one of which I did not have to go on, and he didn't wander for a second (but I'll admit, I was a wreck during the one I didn't attend). I think one of the most important factors, more important than the method being used in a school or by a therapist, is the staff implementing that method. I think many of the different approaches have their benefits, but without a caring teacher who truly respects the individuality and specialness of the student, they can also be pointless. That goes for any kid, really, even the ones who aren't on the spectrum. I'm crossing my fingers that we get lucky again this year.

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