Elementary school students with autism in Harrisonburg didn’t have the opportunity to learn alongside their fellow classmates until two years ago, when Stone Spring Elementary School created its autism integration program. Out of the school’s 500 students, 35 have participated in the program since its creation.
Over the past year, there have been many improvements to the program; speech pathologists and occupational therapists have joined teachers to make social skills groups. These groups focus on social skills, speech, language and motor skills. One activity this group does is make popcorn and deliver it to students and staff throughout the school.
The integration program creates a unique experience in which the children can focus on improving communication skills and receiving a general education. Stone Spring’s program integrates students with autism into general education classes.
There aren’t specific qualifications to get into the program, and all students who have autism are invited to join. In fact, children with autism from all over the city are chartered into Stone Spring to be a part of this program. The program started after teachers and faculty involved in various fields of special education, ranging from speech pathology to classroom teaching, decided to form one department. They thought it’d be easier and more effective for the special education children because they have the same goal in the end: to give their students everything they need in order to be successful.
Meghan Driver, a special education teacher at Stone Spring, has worked in this field for seven years. Driver takes pride in the fact that Stone Spring is the first elementary school in Harrisonburg to have an autism integration program.
“I’m really proud,” Driver said. “I love the team we work with. We have really supportive administrators and school atmosphere and staff, so we are able to do this.”
The special education children aren’t the only students benefiting from the integration program. Driver believes the general education children also benefit from the program by learning about inclusion, acceptance and human differences.
According to Driver, the next step in the integrative program is to bring general education students to learn more about special education. The program would accomplish this by allowing the general education students to visit the special education classrooms. This way, they can interact directly with the special education students who are self-contained, meaning they have a harder time communicating with others.
Michelle Bennett, another teacher at Stone Spring, has worked with special needs children for over 20 years. Bennett is currently working with nine students ranging from first to fifth grade. Activities such as cooking, crafting and science projects that aren’t typical in a Gen-Ed classroom allow Bennett’s students to become stronger communicators while working with and without the general education students.
“[The parents] are excited because they are seeing that their kids are actually communicating more and getting more involved in activities,” Bennett said. “It is amazing. We hope we can set an example for other schools so they can follow what we’ve been doing.”
Joel Will is the father of a child with autism who’s in Stone Spring’s integration program. Will often receives pictures of his child engaging with other Gen-Ed students from teachers throughout the day.
“The other students have totally accepted [my child],” Will said. “There has been a couple kids each year who really take [my child] under their wing.”
The reason Will got his child involved in Stone Spring’s integration program was to get them around more kids and see if it would improve their social skills. According to Will, there’s been drastic improvement in his child’s social skills and behavior.
“[My child] actually wants to be around other kids, unlike before,” Will said. “I’m blessed teachers from both sides have been involved. That was definitely helped my [child] improve.”
Working alongside Bennett and Driver is another special education teacher, Kim Baird. She teaches students in kindergarten through second grade as well as one fourth-grader. Most of the children Baird works with are self-contained. However, Baird doesn’t let this communication barrier slow her or the students down. Baird uses an iPad to help one of her students communicate and picture cards for two others.
With Baird and her co-workers’ constant efforts, some children have already become successfully integrated in the general education classrooms. One of Baird’s students will soon be fully integrated with the general education students.
“It makes me happy that they are going to be integrated,” Baird said. “But it also makes me sad because I will miss them. I am happy because I know I have done what I needed for them. I set a goal and I achieved it. It’s been a great experience watching them grow.”
Some of Baird’s students are able to understand that they’re integrated with general education students; however, some are not yet aware. According to Baird, the children who are aware are enjoying every second of being with their general education peers.
“[The Gen-Ed kids] care a lot about my kids and they will come by and ask why one of my kids is not in class that day if someone is absent,” Baird said. “It is a great feeling seeing them being accepted by their peers.”
Contact Carley Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.