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This inclusion project is supporting preschoolers with autism

This blog post is by Jen Reinehr, Program Psychologist at the Rady Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Diagnoses of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be reliably made starting at two years of age and while participation in programs with typically developing peers is beneficial, mere exposure does not improve social and communication skills.  In the preschool years, families are often forced to choose between a special education preschool classroom in a public school with little to no access to typical peers or a private preschool with access to typical peers but with staff who lack experience and education to support and educate children with ASD.  The Toddler School, an inclusion program for children with ASD is one of the few inclusion programs with outcome data (Stahmer, et. al., 2011). Alexa’s PLAYC is an expansion of this program designed to serve preschoolers as well as toddlers. Within this program, we draw heavily from the Classroom Pivotal Response Training Manual (Stahmer).  Our project, Inclusive Programming for Children with Autism: Training and Tools for Community Preschools, was designed to enable community preschool programs to deliver effective inclusion programs for preschool age students by developing and providing training on inclusion programming for preschool age children and an accompanying toolkit for teachers that would be widely available.

Our program was fortunate to obtain this generous grant from Autism Speaks. With this funding, we were able design a training package on how to effectively include children with ASD in their classrooms with their typically developing peers and pilot it in three preschool classrooms.

Training topics were tailored to the needs of each classroom.  The core content was based upon principles outlined and included within the toolkit and trainings involved:

1.     Autism Spectrum Disorders. What are the early warning signs? What are the core challenges for children with ASD in a classroom setting?  And, who do I contact if there are concerns?

2.     Motivation:  Improving a student’s desire to engage in the classroom.  This section allows the reader to understand how children with ASD learn, their strengths and strategies to increase engagement in their classroom.

3.     Classroom Arrangements:  Structuring the preschool classroom for success.  The content within this portion allows the teachers to evaluate the structure of their environment and determine how to construct an environment that optimizes learning. 

4.Peer-to-Peer Engagement: Fostering friendships for children with ASD.  Social deficits for children with ASD are discussed and how to develop activities that encourage social interaction amongst the children. 

5.Challenging Behaviors:  How to address disruptive behaviors in the classroom.  A review of proactive and reactive strategies that can be utilized in a classroom setting.

Each classroom received a 4-week, hands-on training. The unique needs of each classroom were identified and strategies were tailored to maximize learning. Simultaneously the content was developed for the toolkit.  Pre and post-fidelity checklists and questionnaires were adapted based upon the manual, Classroom Pivotal Response Teaching for Children with Autism by Stahmer, Suhrheinrich, Reed, Schreibman and Bouduc (2011).  Teachers who completed the questionnaires demonstrated an average overall 24% increase in knowledge.  The teachers fidelity improved by an average of 19%.

Following the training, a preschool teacher wrote,

Thank you so much for including our preschool, Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Preschool, in your Autism Speaks grant. It has been an honor and privilege to be able to work alongside of you. I really enjoy sharing and showing you how we incorporate inclusion in our school. You gave so much valuable information to our entire staff.

I had a boy in my class who was diagnosed with autism. I was unable to help him refocus his mind … With your guidance and knowledge, my team and I were able to refocus his thoughts onto something else in a positive way. You also taught and showed us valuable tools on getting him socially involved with other students and keeping the interaction going. I was able to learn so much from watching you in action with him. Your literature packet is such an asset, as it contains so many strategies. The lessons you have given me will be carried on for many years to come. 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.