Children with autism often are unable to say what they need or want, said Carrie Walker.
She’s the director of Florida Autism Center of Excellence, a Pasco County charter school that opened this year in Zephyrhills.
“They’re hungry. They’re sleepy. They can’t express when they’re hurting,” Walker said.
That inability to communicate can cause frustrations, which boil over into behavior problems, Walker added. So, it’s essential to help them learn that their voice is a tool to help them get what they need or want.
“You want to focus on the language first,” said Claire Stanford, a board-certified behavior analyst who works with children at the charter school for prekindergarten through fifth-grade students.
Although public awareness about autism has improved, stereotypes about it still exist, both women said.
Some people lump all children with autism into the same group, failing to distinguish their individual differences. Others assume that children with autism must have low IQs because of their inability to verbalize. Others brand children with autism as being bad kids.
“Autism is a spectrum,” Walker said. Each child faces individual challenges.
By helping children develop and use language skills, problems with behavior often are resolved, Stanford said.
The Florida Autism Center of Excellence aims to help students gain academic, social and behavioral skills needed to be independent in later life. The center uses the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis — a research-based strategy that has been proven to be effective for teaching students with autism.
“We break the goals down into small, discrete, observable steps,” Stanford said. Students are given praise and reinforcement for exhibiting those steps.
While many schools use a stoplight system to regulate behavior, the charter school does not. At those schools, all of the kids will start on green, Stanford said.
“There’s nothing they can do but go down,” she said.
The charter school teaches children to substitute unacceptable behaviors with acceptable choices, Stanford said.
“We do not use punishment,” Walker said.
The school uses individual language assessments to pinpoint gaps. Stanford then helps teachers write a teaching plan, and a data sheet is used to monitor how a student is faring. Parents receive monthly progress reports.
The idea is to tailor instruction to meet an individual child’s needs.
The charter school, on Chancey Road, operates out of a number of portable classroom buildings. It has an enrollment of 18, and is continuing to accept new students until it reaches this year’s cap of 38. Once that happens, new students will be admitted through a lottery system.
Next year, the school hopes to add middle school classes. Ultimately, it would like to have 110 students, Walker said.
To be eligible, students must have a diagnosis of autism by a medical doctor or an Individual Education Plan issued by a school that states the student has autism, Walker said.
She encourages families to take quick action if they believe their son or daughter has autism. The sooner a child is diagnosed, the sooner he or she can get help.
“You want to get them enrolled as early as possible,” Walker said. “Early intervention is the key.”
The charter school also wants to give parents support and help. Parents often feel they are being blamed for their child’s behavior, Walker said.
“For some of them, they feel they’re being pointed at, they’re the cause,” she said. “This is a safe environment for them. They don’t feel judged.”
Walker said the work she does is rewarding.
“I like to see the gains,” Walker said, referring to the progress that students make. “I like to give hope to the parents, because there is hope.”
What: Florida Autism Center of Excellence is a Pasco County Schools charter school providing services for children with autism. It serve prekindergarten through fifth grade, and hopes to add middle school classes next year.
Where: 39735 Chancey Road, Zephyrhills
Phone: (813) 395-5952
As a spectrum disorder, children and adults with autism can exhibit any combination of these behaviors in any degree of severity.
Some examples of behaviors a person with autism may display are:
• Communication: Children may have difficulty in verbal and nonverbal communication. There may be a lack of language development. Speech may be limited or disordered, or they may engage in one-sided conversations. They may have challenges with body language, facial expressions, gestures and signs.
• Social Interactions: Children may exhibit highly inappropriate behaviors and may show indifference to others. They may avoid affection, eye contact, and may play by themselves.
• Imagination: Play may be limited to one or two activities, involving repetitive actions.
• Playing: Children may use toys inappropriately and not for their intended purpose.
• Repetitive Behaviors: Children may develop ritualistic behaviors and obsessions.
Autistic behaviors may include rocking, spinning, flicking hands or fingers in front of their eyes, tapping objects and mouthing objects.