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Education with a special touch

Education with a special touch
Paraeducators provide one-on-one support to students with autism

From classroom instruction to transportation, office administration, food service and more, classified employees throughout the state help students with autism in a variety of settings.

In San Lorenzo Unified School District, four instructional assistants have become well-trained autism specialists. Working in the district’s Augmented Classroom Instruction (ACI) program, Patty Garrett, Carole Anania, Donnette Mendelsohn and Neva Rowden provide one-on-one support to students from pre-school through high school.

“They are an exceptional group of instructional assistants,” says Sue Taylor, San Lorenzo’s special education coordinator. “Each of them has a natural teaching ability, as well as compassion and understanding for children on the autism spectrum.”

Each of the instructional assistants, who go by the reclassified title of instructional assistant autism II, enrolled in an intensive 50-hour behavioral training program. They have also attended numerous conferences and workshops to increase their knowledge about autism.

“I find autism so very interesting,” says Rowden. “I find anything I can to learn more strategies—from small motor skills to reading comprehension to social skills—to help my students be able to succeed in school.”

Nationwide, more than a quarter million students receive special education services for autism. It’s a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It typically appears during the first three years of life and affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

The number of children diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2002, autism made national headlines when the federal Department of Education reported 1,700 percent more schoolchildren were diagnosed with autism than a decade earlier. Researchers have looked into several theories to explain the increase, including the possibility that the rising autism numbers were caused by improved and earlier diagnoses, or by childhood vaccines and other environmental causes.

Regardless of what is behind the explosion of autism cases, schools like those in San Lorenzo play a critical role in helping children cope with their autism.

“Children with autism learn very differently than a typical child,” says Anania. “It is important for educators that work with a child who has autism to understand how these children process information.”

Most professionals agree that students with autism respond well to highly structured, specialized education programs designed to meet the individual’s needs. That’s why the ACI program is successful. It provides teachers with the specialized support they need. 

While each student’s progress is outlined in their individualized education program (IEP), the rewards for San Lorenzo’s instructional assistants are often measured on a more personal level.

“I’ve had the best nine years receiving letters and cards from parents appreciating all I do,” says Mendelsohn, “to see tears of joy with something as simple as learning the alphabet, and as big as learning to talk.”

Garrett was the first paraeducator in the district to specialize in autism. Like most people dedicated to special education, she feels rewarded in the work she does.

“This program has been successful for many of our students, and we all continue to learn from them as well,” Garrett says. “Each student is unique in their way of learning, so we are constantly creating ways for them to learn and understand our world.”