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April Marked Autism Awareness Month (May, 2008)

Total Language ClassApril was a time for autism awareness and in Frisco ISD the number of students with autism is growing, as it is throughout the state.

According to a recent article in Texas School Business Magazine, there are currently 19,335 students in the Texas Public Schools with autism, compared to 2,129 in 1994. In Frisco ISD there are approximately 200 students with autism, a disorder that is characterized by difficulties with language skills and social interaction.

One program in FISD that is targeting a small percentage of these students is the Total Language Class. The TLC program started 8 years ago as a way to meet the unique needs of students with autism. Special Education Coordinator Debbie Lair said FISD needed to add to the continuum of services provided to address the largest needs of these students in the areas of language and socialization, among others.

Using only research-based approaches, students in the TLC program are taught in a safe environment where they can get into a natural learning setting as quickly as possible. The special education staff is constantly working to keep up with new research to help in this effort.

Because teachers experienced in working with students with autism are difficult to find, FISD does most of its own teacher training, with teachers participating staff development at least once a month. In addition, the lead teacher frequently goes to the classrooms to offer hands-on modeling. The adult to student ratio in these classrooms is approximately 3 to 5-7.

Total Language ClassAnd just as it is in the regular education setting, the teachers are the key to the success of the special education program.

“The staff is absolutely wonderful,” Lair says. “I truly value their patience, perseverance and dedication to children with special needs. They amaze me daily and I learn a great deal from them as I watch them work with children with such unique needs. The students and families know they are special to our staff.”

Currently there are 8 TLC classrooms at the elementary level. Of the four students who started the program 8 years ago that are still in FISD, three are almost totally mainstreamed in the regular education environment, despite the fact when they entered the program their language skills were virtually non-functional, Lair said.

“The goal is always to help children gain skills that will guide them to learning more and more in a general education setting, but time is needed for acquisition of skills and guided practice so learning can be generalized,” she added.

Working toward this goal means something different with each student.

Total Language Class“The students attend and learn skills in their general education class; when they are ready to acquire skills in the general education setting, the length of time varies according to the individual child,” Lair said. “The support teacher that goes into the regular education setting is just a guide - all direction in the classroom comes from the regular education teacher.”

Parent training is another key component to the program. Each month classes are offered on such topics as communications, building social skills and behavior in the community. In-home training is available to students who require generalization of learning skills from school to the home.

In the TLC motor lab, students work on fine and gross motor skills and can also do preparation for participating in the Miracle League and other community programs. These activities can also work on social skills with peers. In the classroom time, they have centers where they can work on their Individual Education Plan. Students can be seen working on puzzles, shapes, writing, and verbal skills. Some students that are less verbal use sign language for communication.

Total Language ClassOne of the most rewarding aspects of the program is the warm acceptance of the school staff and students. The regular education students love having the TLC students in the regular classroom and at the school activities.  

“There is quite a demand to be peer buddies with our (TLC) students,” Lair says. As further evidence of this enthusiasm, students at Sparks Elementary raised over $3,000 for autism research for Autism Awareness Month. Each class collected "silver coins" in a milk jug.The class that collected the most coins for each week in April got to keep "Princess Silver Coins" (a stuffed elephant) in their classroom.At the end of the month, the class with the most money had a popsicle party; Mrs. William's class in second grade raised over $350. Way to go!