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Lessons Learned from Special Schools

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Reading, Writing, and Remediation: Lessons Learned from Special Schools

by Sandi Busch

Autism Asperger’s Digest | September/October 2007


There are schools scattered across the United States that specialize in students with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and High Functioning autism (HFA). These schools are filled with intensively trained teachers and they’re achieving great success with students who were struggling in their public schools.

So what are they doing differently? And what can we learn that might inspire fresh ideas for our children wherever they attend school?

One major difference immediately stands out. They integrate technology, social skills training and occupational therapy (OT) into every aspect of the curriculum. They’ve replaced the traditional model of once-a-week social groups or OT with consistent daily instruction and they take full advantage of technology to remediate weaknesses and build strengths.

Come take a closer look at three of the schools – the Summit Academy in Ohio, the Springstone School in California and the Harbour School in Maryland.

Technology as a Tool

John Howard, Co-Founder and Language Arts Teacher at theSpringstoneSchool, has a caveat. “We’re very mindful not to have technology be a feature. We only use it when it is effective.” But they have many effective uses for computers.

The students at Springstone never miss homework because they didn’t write complete instructions or left their notebook at school. They have access to all assignments at any time via the Internet. They don’t have to worry about maintaining attention to the teacher while also furiously laboring to take notes. And they don’t have to feel defeated when handwriting or attentional deficits win the battle. Instead teachers put their lessons into a Word file, project it onto a screen for use during class and then take one important extra step. They download the file to the students, providing thorough ready-made notes.

Computers become a tool to organize and centralize schoolwork with graphic organizers available through Inspiration software. The critical step here is for teachers to work with the students, reinforcing proper use of the computer and ensuring that their electronic schedule remains organized and prioritized. Over time, this consistent visual representation helps students replace executive function disabilities with a better sense of organization.

Another exciting way that Springstone uses computers is by making them “portable and untethered.” Their computers connect wirelessly to a central server so if a student needs to take a break or go to a quieter place, they can take their work (the laptop) with them.

The Harbour School uses software from Kurzweil Educational Systems that delivers lessons with visual and auditory feedback. Teachers can choose from a database of prepared lessons or scan their own text into the computer and add electronic “sticky notes” with questions for review or comprehension. Then students work at their own pace, listening to the computer read the lesson (in a natural sounding voice with adjustable delivery speeds) while they follow along and interact with the text.

Technology opens a world of opportunities for students at theHarbourSchool. “I might not be able to express myself in written form but I can do a film with voiceover. A persuasive speech can be done graphically. Students are encouraged to express themselves in a way that works for them, not necessarily pen and paper,” said the school’s Director, Martha Schneider. Students are taught how to use a variety of electronic media to demonstrate academic competence.

Odyssey software is used at the Summit Academyto individualize lessons according to academic level and learning style. At school, students use computers to maximize their productivity during independent time. At home, parents can log onto the Internet to check their child’s progress throughout the day and kids go online to do their homework. Since Odyssey is web-based it’s like having a cyber school supplement to the brick and mortar school.

With such dedication to technology it’s no surprise to learn that they all support using the keyboard. “You have to consciously develop the mindset because we’re so used to paper and pencil,” said Karen Flory at the Summit Academy. But encouraging use of the keyboard is one more way to reduce stress for students with fine motor issues, thus saving energy to focus on learning.

Integrated Social Skills and OT

Providing reinforcement of social skills and OT in all classrooms creates a framework that supports emotional balance and improves overall success at school.

“Many kids with AS didn’t make it through a full school day or they were falling apart at home,” said John Howard. His co-founder, Kristine Wong, is an occupational therapist who brought OT into the mainstream at Springstone. All of their classrooms are equipped with a variety of OT tools that teachers and students have been trained to use for sensory support. T-Stools, balls, fidgets, alternative seating, sour candy and straws are a few of the accommodations available to help students maintain attention and appropriate behavior.

Occupational therapy is also uniquely used at Springstone to facilitate transitions. Every student has 10 minutes of prescribed OT in-between classes, which gives them a transitional object and helps them “cleanse the palette” as they change activities.

At the Harbour School teachers model social skills, students practice, and that cycle is repeated as opportunities arise throughout the day. They frequently film social interactions and replay them so students benefit from immediate feedback. In addition to maximizing these learning moments, each student has daily social goals. As they complete their goals they are rewarded with “Harbour Dollars” and every Friday they turn their school money into a tangible reward by purchasing items produced in the classroom businesses.

Social Skills Outside the Box

Karen Flory, a teacher at the Summit Academy, believes that “thinking outside the box is more grounded than in the box.” Her belief comes to life through giving her students a real world venue for practicing their social skills. At least three days a week she takes her students into the community for part of the day. Their activities range from doing volunteer work in the public library to playing games with residents in a retirement community to shopping or going to a restaurant together. Before each trip they discuss what to expect and they prepare by practicing the specific behavior or interaction that will be required.

It takes extra effort to coordinate the outings but her students learn far more than social skills. Ms. Flory takes digital photographs that the students use to make scrapbooks and collages, which are then shared in the classroom to build friendships and reinforce episodic memory. An outing becomes a writing lesson when the students write thank you notes to the retired seniors. Her students even wrote – and won – a grant to help finance their activities at the retirement home.

Going the Extra Distance

These schools have other not-so-high-tech ways to help their students. The Summit Academy offers therapeutic marital arts and outdoor experiential education. The patented Village Curriculum at theHarbour School turns classrooms into operating businesses and the school into a village where students apply to be in the homeroom representing their favorite business and each business is tied into the academic curriculum. These innovative programs work together with academics to build empathy and independence.

Smorgasbord of Possibilities

Integrating technology and social-emotional learning into the school day requires a high level of commitment, cooperation and, of course, funding. But financial barriers can be overcome in any school by adapting these concepts on a smaller scale or by seeking alternative solutions such as partnerships with businesses or universities.

“Over the last five years we have made tremendous progress implementing technology as much as funds permit,” said Lyn Mulroy, a Learning Support teacher in a large public school district in Pennsylvania. In spite of having only three computers, her students use them “all day every day” for academics (supplemental or for all coursework depending on the student’s needs), research and organization. In her classroom, computers are a favorite place to spend free time and they’re often used as a calming activity. Ms. Mulroy goes the extra distance by giving students access to her own laptop for graphics software that is not available on the school’s computers.

Rebecca Klaw, an independent consultant, trainer and advocate for children on the autism spectrum, works with parents and teachers to find solutions for behavioral and sensory issues. She has implemented many inexpensive accommodations. Need a creative solution to reduce distraction from flickering fluorescent lights and overhead decorations? Wear a baseball cap. Trouble concentrating during tests? Temporarily turn the desk into a private carrel with large pieces of cardboard. Or wrap bungee cords around the chair legs to provide a quiet sensory assist for a student whose concentration improves when he’s allowed to shake his leg.

Lessons Learned

Consider the amount of planning and extra processing time that kids with AS and HFA need to get through even simple tasks. Add to that several heaping cups of sensory overload, social confusion, stress related to changes and several spoonfuls of organizational deficits. Mixed together the result is a confusing and overwhelming environment. These extraordinary students dedicate excessive amounts of energy to meeting expectations, maintaining appropriate behavior and hiding their anxieties. Whether their control slips at school or explodes at home, the true antecedent – an extreme vulnerability fed by multiple ingredients – may not be identified when their otherwise “great” day is reviewed.

Appreciating this level of anxiety is the first step toward working together to implement strategies that increase coping mechanisms. The lesson learned is that an excellent tool for building a supportive and successful educational experience is the daily integration of technology, social skills training and OT.

“It’s all about freeing our children to listen, concentrate and learn,” observed Ms. Klaw. The most wonderful thing happens when time is dedicated every day to address the core issues of AS and HFA … confidence grows and academics improve. Let the experiences of these three schools be your buffet of possibilities so you can savor the sweet taste of remediation and success in your school, too!



Sandi Busch is a freelance writer and homeschooling mom to a son with Asperger’s Syndrome.



Harbour School


Rebecca Klaw: Consultant, Trainer, Advocate


Springstone School


Summit Academy



Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2007. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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  1. kimfields says:


    You might try posting your question on AADigest’s Facebook page:
    http://www.Facebook/AutismDigest. We have over 2,500 fans who might have good advice for you!


  2. Jessica says:

    For those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to have a specialized school nearby, what are the best boarding schools for kids with Asperger’s/high functioning autism? Many are advertised but I have heard nightmare stories about some but rarely hear about an Aspie who found a boarding school that not only helped him/her academically and socially but that he/she would choose to attend, even if they had to board to do so.