Career Academy students at Questar III’s Columbia-Greene Educational Center (CGEC) had the opportunity to discuss neurodiverse students with award-winning children’s author Jennifer Roy. Roy’s book MindBlind about profoundly gifted boy who also Asperger’s syndrome was published in 2010 and received a YALSA award. Roy led a discussion with students and staff around what kids with autism and their parents want teachers to know.
Neurodiversity, officially recognized as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is present in one out of every 69 people. Students with ASD often have communicative difficulties, trouble with social skills, obsessive interest in rigid thinking, sensory sensitivities, clumsy or stiff movement, a need for sameness or routine, a short attention span (unless focused on something personally important), and stimming (repetitive movements for self-soothing). Roy asserted that the essential element in helping the neurodiverse student is building trust in their relationships and environment.
Roy opened the conversation saying autism is not a behavior issue. She quickly quipped it can, of course, result in behavior issues. Roy presented a description of the outward appearance of neurodiverse students, strategies to assist students, and how to handle the specific needs while balancing the needs of the class as a whole. Building Trades teacher Bob Augstell shared a variety of ways he reinforces student accountability while recognizing student needs.
Other staff agreed the conversation will have a positive impact on the CGEC community.
“I believe this conversation reinforced the need for direct instruction of social skills in our classrooms today,” said Integrated English teacher Rebecca Lanier.
“[Jennifer] helped us understand how we can better work with parents and students with ASD in the classroom. She gave us practical tools and reassurance on how to be most effective and understanding for all our students,” said Special Education teacher Santina Sheehan.
Jeff LaMountain, who teaches the Career Academy program, said the nature of working with neurodiverse students requires teachers to plan differently to meet their needs.
“Neurodiverse kids are usually asynchronous in development. They may be highly knowledgeable in one area and yet experience significant delays in other. This paradigm presents a unique difficulty when considering program accommodations, meeting Regents requirements, and advocating for the least restrictive environment.”
Roy acknowledged these difficulties but commended CGEC staff on their record of maintaining high standards for students with special needs and focus on strength-based education.
During the conversation, Roy offered a quote by a parent of an autistic child.
“An autistic child is not a broken neurotypical. They have a different way of experiencing the world. I believe that this difference merits serious consideration when determining the flexibility of the approach offered.”
Esther Vezzuto, a teacher in the Career Academy program and grandmother to a child on the Spectrum, agreed.
“Let students be who they are. Don’t shame them into conforming to society’s view or their peers’ view of what is typical.”
Roy agreed and reassured the staff that people with ASD do not want to be fixed or cured but accepted and supported. CGEC School Counselor Caitlin Preisner said after the event that it was helpful to hear from parents about what they want educators to understand about children with ASD.
Summarizing the event, Principal Jake Stomieroski felt there was a consensus and understanding.
“Everyone is a vital and essential part of our community. Increased awareness of the ASD student experience reinforces our building’s culture: All members deserve kindness, friendship, and respect.”