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"... the most important considerations in devising educational programs for children with autistic spectrum disorders have to do with recognition of the autism spectrum as a whole, with the concomitant implications for social, communicative, and behavioral development and learning, and with the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child across areas of development." —Educating Children with Autism, 2001
New York City's ASD Nest Program
In 2002, Dorothy Siegel, senior project director at NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, collaborated with then-District 15 Superintendent Carmen Farina and other special education leaders in Central Brooklyn to study the needs of students with higher functioning autism. The program is built on the Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT) model, modified to meet the needs of children with HFA/Aspergers. The program is designed by Shirley Cohen, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Special Education at Hunter College and the Director of the Regional Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Dr. Cohen also directs training for all new staff in the program.
The ASD Nest Program was piloted in one classroom in New York City in 2003 and has spread to 16 schools in the city. The program currently serves approximately 250 students diagnosed with ASD, and aims to eventually serve 2,000 students with HFA/Aspergers.
Staff Training: Teachers are required to take two 3-credit courses specifically designed for them at Hunter College the summer before beginning to teach in the program. One course teaches child development with a focus on higher functioning children with autism and strategies the Nest program uses to work with them; the second course teaches behavior strategies. Teachers are required to take an additional 1-credit course during that year on social development theory and strategies for higher functioning children with autism.
Team Collaboration: Weekly 90-minute team meetings are required of all staff in the program including speech therapists, social workers, and OTs.
Staff Retention: Anecdotally, the rate of turnover among teachers is lower than average. Aside from the usual reasons for leaving, these teachers are more likely to stay in the program because they like it. The same is true for therapists.
Family Liaisons: Social workers or guidance counselors serve as the liaison b/n families and staff. They organize monthly parent meetings and workshops to get to know the parents and to present information helpful to families, such as behavioral strategies used at school that they can use at home.
Social Communication Curricula: Specific curricula drawing from the Social Thinking Model developed by Michelle Garcia Winner and Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) developed by Steven Gutstein are used to help children function in the social domain.
Class Size and Model: Classroom sizes are specific and inclusive. Kindergarten classes serve four children with ASD and eight typically developing children. Grades 1–3 serve four children with ASD and 12 typically developing children. Grades 4–5 serve four children with ASD and 16 typically developing children. Grades 6–8 serve five children with ASD and 20 typically developing children. This planned and gradual increase in the number of students in the classroom helps prepare students for independence and self-advocacy in high school.
Typically-developing children are chosen for the classrooms by the school principals who know how to balance all their classes on a grade and who decide which teachers are best for which kids. Principals are asked to try to screen out any children known to have emotional disabilities.
Middle School Program: The middle school builds a support structure that fosters independence and provides a safety net to prevent kids from falling through the cracks. The middle school has at least two CTT (Collaborative Team Teaching) classes on each grade. One is a “regular” CTT class (12 special ed kids and 20 general ed kids) and one is an ASD Nest CTT class (5 ASD kids and 20 general ed kids). All the students in each CTT class have the usual subjects with different teachers, together. They stay together as a group for all major subjects except math, which is tracked. In every class, there is an ASD teacher (special ed) who is assigned to no more than two subject areas. She/he co-teaches the subject area with the general ed teacher. The teachers learn how to (and have time to) co-plan and co-teach. In sixth grade the ASD kids are in this CTT class with their general education peers for the entire day except English. In seventh and eighth grade, they are with their peers for English as well. The school has created a “Nest-like” period every day for ALL kids—8 or 10 kids meet with their “advisor” as a group for 20 or 25 minutes per day. This serves a variety of purposes, but mostly to prevent kids from falling through the cracks. The “Nest” class is just one of these groups.
Improving the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in grades K-12.