Autism Awareness Month is coming to a close, but in O’Bannon Elementary School’s Connections Classroom, hearts and minds are always open to new possibilities.
Katie Hughes, Western Line School District’s behavior interventionist, along with resource and inclusion instructor Magan King and assistant Marilyn Ross work to meet the educational and emotional needs of students who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Even more, this team of three — with the oversight and support of OBES Principal James Johnson — implement strategies and methods that result in students being able to function and even thrive in a general education setting.
The program began in the fall of 2018 after Hughes and King met with Principal Johnson about opening and developing the classroom given the growing number of children diagnosed with ASD.
Hughes credited Johnson with ensuring the Connections Classroom got up and running.
“We had so many children with so many needs that we weren’t meeting and tried to meet, but it was just hard not having them all in one place so that we could get all their needs met and that’s kind of how it started,” said Hughes. “We coined it ‘The Connections Classroom’ because we have so many children who are nonverbal and pretty low functioning, but they’ve come so far and improved so much that we want to get them into more of the day-to-day with their general education peers.”
To achieve such, one of the main factors is behavior.
Once behavior is under control, according to Hughes, everything else happens naturally.
Given this, behavior is always a key focus.
And, being in the Connections Classroom, Hughes, King and Ross have been able to really commit to that.
“We’ve created a structure for them and a schedule they follow that allows them to grow and they’re becoming more verbal and able to express themselves in a way that will help them in the classroom when they are out interacting with their peers,” Hughes shared.
Principal Johnson said as the years progressed, he and his faculty began to see changes not only in their community, but also in their students.
“The needs of students became even more important and sometimes, the needs are not met in the general education class and are not met in the regular self contained class. So, we thought this particular program would meet every single student exactly where they are,” he said. “It provides them with verbal skills, hands-on and kinesthetic types of activities and high functional skills.”
The solid approach of OBES’ Connections Classroom encompasses the development of behavioral and social skills and is the overarching reason why Johnson believed it to be the right thing to do as each individual child needs to be “met where they are.”
Although parents may not be able to speak in terms of comparability as it pertains to the program, it is apparent the Connections Classroom is unique in the realm of exceptional education.
Hughes, through her work at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, has had clinical experience — an asset that has proven valuable throughout the course of her profession — in addition to her experience in educational settings.
“I worked in Atlanta for a school where parents were having to pay to send their children to ABA therapy or behavior analysis therapy for children with autism. So, this is my first experience in an actual school that we’re allowed to do this because of so many helpful hands,” she said, noting the help of occupational therapists and speech therapists who they collaborate with. “We work a lot on sensory integration and we try to focus on their sensory when they’re having behavioral issues and sometimes they just need to get their hands in Play-Doh and rice and kinetic sand and we just see a decrease in behavior when they explore their senses and that kind of thing.”
“One thing that makes it unique is that we have two experts who are really passionate about the work that they’re doing,” Johnson highlighted. The passion here really is unparalleled and the same thing with Ms. Ross — she’s come right in and fit in with the family here so just the team itself, to me, is second to none.”
Ross was commended by Johnson and Hughes for having such tremendous patience — a requisite trait to be able to do the work done in the Connections Classroom.
Ross has dedicated a number of years to the O’Bannon campus and first began working in a similar class on the high school side.
“I just got hired here full time,” she said. “Just seeing them and working with them touches my heart.”
While some days can yield high stress levels for the Connections Classroom team, seeing a nonverbal child demonstrate the ability to make a complete sentence “makes it all worth it.”
Seeing the parents so pleased makes it worth it for the Connections Classroom staff as well.
The communication is much more frequent compared to that of a general education teacher because of the much larger number of students and mostly all of the Connections Classroom students are car riders, which presents more opportunities for in-person contact
“We just hear and see a lot of positive feedback because we see them so often and talk to them so often, but they have been extremely involved, all of our parents,” Hughes said.
Johnson added, “They’re very receptive to this classroom. They love the faculty who work here because they feel like the kids are being seen and helped. So sometimes, even when I’m out shopping, I’ll hear, ‘I love Ms. Ross, I love Mrs. Hughes or I love Ms. King,’ because they can see the difference in their child and they can feel the passion that comes from them.”
Both Hughes and Johnson emphasized the overall goal for their students in the Connections Classroom, which is for them to simply learn the best way they can and apply it.
Johnson prefaced that emphasis with acknowledging how important it is for students with ASD to be understood by their peers.
“We spend a lot of time trying to teach students how to function in a social or general education setting, but another goal is also teaching those in a general education setting how to deal with others who are different, so that’s a very important part of the puzzle as well,” he said. “I don’t think we’re doing any student justice unless we start talking about how cultural differences, educational and economic differences are important to education as a whole and to our students being productive citizens.”
Hughes recalled a quote that states, “Autism is a lot like having your finger nails cut too short and choosing the wrong feet every day of the week,” to describe how those individuals diagnosed with ASD try to process information and understand the world around them.
However, she and fellow staff are confident that if they can provide their students the tools to help them, their job is being done.
“I think when you’re speaking about a child with autism, people should know every child can learn and it’s no different for a child with autism, there’s just different ways to teach them,” Hughes illustrated. “But if you find that way for them to understand and they learn, there’s just no limit.”