Parents with autistic children often have a frustrating experience: Their child develops without normal social and communications skills, and they are forced to scour for information on the disorder.
In the past, school districts would send students to private and public institutions that could handle their particular set of circumstances, but with a growing autistic population throughout the country and the rising cost of sending so many out of district, some school systems have opted to create their own programs.
They hope to add kindergarten, first, and second grade next year.
According to Carolyn Gallagher, the autism and behavioral consultant for North Bergen, she had pushed the idea for years, but was told by Superintendent Robert Dandorph that there were no funds, staff, or space.
The federal funds solved the problem.
Gallagher, Director of Special Education Services Robert Kornberg, and teacher Jennifer Cheselka were given the go-ahead last year.
“In the real world, we want to look at the larger picture, and our larger picture is that we have a growing autistic population in North Bergen,” said Kornberg last week.
He said that 16 students were chosen to be a part of the preschool program, while the district in total has around 100 students classified as autistic. Most of them are sent to other schools, for more money that it would cost North Bergen to educate them if it had its own program.
He said that 1 in 94 children are autistic in New Jersey, while the national average in 1 in 150. Some speculate that this is only because New Jersey is known for having good educational programs for the, so some people may move to the state if their children are autistic. Others say more children are diagnosed in the state.
Autistic children often struggle with problems such as aggressive behavior and failure to make eye contact. The disorder still has no known cause.
Gallagher said that she, Cheselka, and Kornberg toured the premier autism programs throughout the state and tried to “cherry pick” the best teaching methods.
North Bergen’s program is being taught by the scientific principal of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), in which behavior is collected as data, which guides instruction. The progress of students is charted and creates the pace of their curriculum, allowing them to learn at their own pace.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, ABA is among the recommended treatment methods for autism.
Along with Cheselka, there are two teachers in charge of an eight-student classroom, and a one-to-one ratio of teacher aide per student.
Each student receives an individualized home visit twice a month to help parents model the lessons taking place in the classroom. North Bergen has also teamed up with North Hudson Academy, a private North Bergen school that caters to children with disabilities, to provide parents with monthly lectures on issues like working with siblings of autistic children.
A speech, occupational, and physical therapist are available everyday for students.
Cheselka, who is currently pursing her masters in ABA and has spearheaded the program, said that all of the staff members constantly receive job training.
Each student also has an individualized learning plan that is driven by their own data, said Cheselka. As a student progresses through “programs,” like cutting and pasting or numbers, data is collected. This data helps form their curriculum.
Various types of autism
“It’s a spectrum disorder,” said Gallagher. “You have kids over here that are really high-functioning and they move through programs [quickly], and then you have kids over here that are on the lower end of the spectrum that you hare trying 15 different ways to teach the same concept.”
Two trailers at the North Bergen Preschool Center, located within James J. Braddock Park, are now the home of the autism program. Kornberg said that because of popular demand, another class of students will be added to the program within the next month, which will reach its five-month mark on Feb. 1.
Three students on their way
According to Gallagher, three students will soon be put into an “inclusion class,” which will be composed of 10 typical kids their age and some specially classified students. She that the autistic students will be “mainstreamed” into a regular education setting if their progress continues.
She said that part of the benefit of having autistic students within the school district is their proximity to regular education classes. She said that these students’ peers are being taught in the trailer next door, not in another municipality, which makes the logistics of bring students into the typical population easier.
Cheselka said that she has seen great progress in specific students.
“[With autism] you see some maladaptive behaviors, lots of tantrums,” said Cheselka. “An inability to communicate is one of the biggest obstacles. So we have this one little boy [who would] come in everyday and tantrum.”
She said that over the last few months he has learned to manage some of that behavior and is able to communicate more efficiently.
Teacher Vanessa Treus, who worked for a private institution that she said did not have the same staffing or materials as North Bergen, called her students’ progress “remarkable.”
“All of them know their addresses, home numbers, their states, their countries,” said Treus. “We have kids who are learning their letters to kids that are reading words.”
Kornberg said that this program will only be successful if it can grow to higher grade levels as its students do.
“That is very important, because if we don’t do that, then we have to look at an outside placement, and then we just defeated what our intentions were,” said Kornberg.
He hopes to expand it to a kindergarten, first, and possibly second grade class next year, but finding space within an already crowded school district will be a struggle. He also wants to make sure that the autistic classes are close to typical grade level ones, so mainstreaming students will be easier.
In addition to finding space, he hopes that more parents will become involved in the support services they have provided, since changing the students’ behavior at home is half the battle. He also wants to bring in more technology.
Still, he said the program is 95 percent where they had hoped it would be by this time.
Public school learning at its best
Kelly Urso’s son Dylan was placed in an early intervention program before coming to North Bergen’s program.
Urso, who works at the preschool center as a teacher’s aide, said that she has seen a 100 percent change in him.
“[His] speech isn’t where is should be yet, but it’s gotten better,” said Urso. “He is not afraid of anything. He is persistent, much more social…he was social before, but now he’ll give people a chance.”
She said that she wanted him in the district because of its good reputation, and because of the possibility to be mainstreamed.
Teacher Kimberly Cerbone said that data was constantly being taken and that students are building on skills every day.
Gallagher said that it was because of people like Kornberg and Dandorph that the program has been given the tools to succeed.
“When I’m [at the school] I always get the chills because I wouldn’t think this program would work as beautifully as it works,” said Dandorph. “We always try to put ourselves in the position as the parent. This is what we would want for our child.”
Cheselka said that she was happy to institute a program that often fails in the public school setting because of inadequate support and funds.
“It has given me such a unique opportunity to be able to implement a program that is effective in a public school setting,” said Cheselka. “In a community that really has a need for it, [it’s] just amazing.”
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.