Acting teaches social skills to autistic kids

Acting out
Children with autism perform at Vanderbilt’s SENSE Theatre.

Acting can teach social skills to students with autistim, writes Laura McKenna in The Atlantic.

How do you join a conversation at a middle-school lunch table? What do you say when someone says hi to you in the hallway and you don’t know her name? How do you delicately correct a member of your lab group in science without calling him stupid?

. . . A set of subtle and complicated social skills is embedded into the entire school experience, from the lunchroom to the classroom.

Drama classes can help autistic students improve their ability to interact with others, concludes a new Vanderbilt study.

Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, teaches drama exercises such as role playing and improvisation to children with high-functioning autism in her SENSE Theatre program.

Drama participants are better able to recognize faces, understand others’ perspectives and regulate anxiety, compared to a control group, she found.

Researchers at the University of Kent found that children with autism could recognize more facial expressions after they participated in a drama program. Children who participated in the Social Competence Intervention Program, another drama-based intervention, improved their ability to play cooperatively, share, speak with respect, communicate while smiling, and say appropriate pleasantries, like please and thank you.

MarbleJam Kids, an after-school group in River Edge, New Jersey, provides art, music, and movement therapy to about 120 kids on the autistic spectrum. Founder Anna Villa-Bager wanted a program for her daughter.

Children can role-play responses to social dilemmas, writes McKenna, whose son is a MarbleJam kid. “Improvisation exercises are also useful because so many autistic kids otherwise rely on ‘scripts’ to navigate social situations.”

Autistic actors star in Rule Breaking, production by the NYU Steinhardt Drama Therapy program.

Autistic actors star in Rule Breaking, a production by the NYU Steinhardt Drama Therapy program.

Teaching autistic kids to act like everyone else is controversial, reports Shira Polan in ScienceLine. While Corbett values social competence, Maria Hodermarska, a drama therapist at NYU, doesn’t think autistic people need social skills to improve their lives.

“At NYU, we focus on social justice, instead of addressing these deficits in functioning,” says Hodermarksa, whose son acts in Rule Breaking: Disability as Performance. “Drama therapy gives people who are marginalized a voice, a platform, a place to be seen and heard.”

Some of McKenna’s readers think students with autism should be allowed to pursue their interests rather than being pushed into drama classes.

My nephew, who’s on the spectrum, did a summer theater program in middle school by his own choice. He had no talent, but liked hanging out with theater kids. He tried to get into drama in high school, but didn’t get through the auditions.

District not liable for drug sting arrests

Riverside County (California) schools aren’t responsible for a drug sting that targeted special ed students, a Superior Court judge has ruled. Judge Raquel A. Marquez dismissed a 2013 suit brought by Jesse Snodgrass, reports Jane Meredith Adams in EdSource.

After his expulsion was reversed, Jesse Snodgrass was graduated from Chaparral High.

After his expulsion was reversed, Jesse Snodgrass completed high school.

Snodgrass was a 17-year-old with autism and bipolar disorder when he was befriended and manipulated by an undercover sheriff’s deputy, the suit alleged. “Dan” sent 60 text messages asking him to buy marijuana.

He was arrested on felony drug charges and expelled. Later, citing extenuating circumstances, a judge gave Snodgrass six months of probation. An administrative law judge overturned the expulsion, saying that Snodgrass “has overwhelmingly demonstrated that his actions were a manifestation of his disability.”

A 2014 Rolling Stone story, The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass, and a Vice Media video, The War on Kids, “launched a barrage of negative publicity” that persuaded local school districts to stop authorizing drug stings, writes Adams.

Disabled son was pushed out of district school

Beth Hawkins’ autistic son was pushed out of his district school in Minneapolis — and embraced by a charter, she writes on Real Clear Education.

According to Hillary Clinton, “Most charter schools . . . don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” District schools “do, thankfully, take everybody,” the candidate said at a forum.

Beth and Corey Hawkins

Beth and Corey Hawkins

Any school — district or charter — can “push out” a problem student, writes Hawkins, an education writer.

When a student’s needs are too hard to meet, a school may “discipline the student often and loudly, until the parent gets the message,” or send the student to an alternative school. Some segregate problem students in special ed programs or “flat-out tell students, ‘This might not be the school for you’.”

The district school thought her son’s problems stemmed from his “bad attitude.” She thought his “good” school was bad for him.

Her 13-year-old son now attends Venture Academy, a blended-learning charter. “Students create their own learning plans, choosing what they find interesting from a menu of online and bricks-and-mortar options,” writes Hawkins.

A few days into the school year, the charter’s social worker called to say her son “had done something tough with aplomb.” His teachers “wanted my input on how to reinforce the victory going forward.”

“It was the first time the call was about playing to his strengths,” Hawkins writes. “It was the first time I was called on as the expert on my own child.”

Autistic girl joins Sesame Street

A muppet with autism is joining the Sesame Street family, though she’s not scheduled to appear on TV yet.

Unlike most children diagnoses with autism spectrum disorders, Julia is a girl, notes the LA Times. One in 42 boys have autism, compared to 1 in 189 girls — meaning about five times more boys than girls are diagnosed with autism.

“We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism,” said Sherrie Westin, Sesame’s executive vice president, global impact and philanthropy.

Julia stars in a “digital storybook,” We’re Amazing, 1,2,3. She’s is introduced as a long-time friend of Elmo.

In one scene, as she swings with Elmo, Elmo introduces her to his friend Abby. But Julia keeps swinging and doesn’t look in Abby’s direction, prompting Abby to say, “your friend doesn’t like me.”

But that’s not true, Elmo responds. “It’s just hard for her to talk when she’s swinging,” he explains.

Julia flaps her hands when she’s excited, takes a long time to answer questions, is alarmed by loud noises and knows all the words to songs.

Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children includes videos about autism; cards that use Sesame characters to teach basic skills to children with autism (such as “Elmo goes potty”) and overviews on “being a friend,” “brothers and sisters,” “see the amazing,” and “what to say to a parent of a child with autism.”

Carnival of Homeschooling

The new Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Notes From a Homeschooled Mom.

Happy Elf Mom writes about homeschooling an autistic child.

Rise in autism tied to ‘diagnostic substitution’

As autism diagnoses rose, intellectual disability diagnoses fell, reports a Penn State study on  “diagnostic substitution.” Many of the “new” autism cases reflect changes in how children are labeled rather than a rise in kids with learning or communications problems, researchers concluded.

Autism prevalence rates rose from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 children in 2010, according to a Centers for Disease Control report, reports Ed Week‘s Christina Samuels.autism_intellectual_disability_rates.jpg

The fastest-growing group of children with autism spectrum disorder are those with normal to above-average intelligence, said the CDC’s Jon Baio. It’s not likely these children would have been identified as having an intellectual disability, he said. “What has changed to put children today at an increased risk of having autism? We really don’t know.”

The CDC’s figures, which aren’t based on examination of children, may be unreliable, says David Mandell, associate director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

After special ed, what comes next?

When special-education students leave high school, what comes next? Education Week looks at the transition from special education to college, job training and the workforce.

Sixty-two percent of special-ed students earn a high school degree in four years, compared to 81 percent of all students. But some graduates haven’t met the same standards as mainstream students.

. . . a federal study that tracked youths with disabilities eight years after they left school found that 60 percent had enrolled in college, not much lower than the 67 percent reported for youths without disabilities. But students with disabilities were more likely to be enrolled in a community college or vocational school, as opposed to a four-year-college, than their typically developing peers.

Young people with disabilities are almost as likely to be working eight years later, but earn less than youths who hadn’t been in special education. A new federal law is trying to help special-ed students find better jobs.

Gloria Clark is a graduating senior at Decatur High School in Decatur GA.  Photo:  Michael A. Schwarz, Education Week

Gloria Clark, a graduating senior at Decatur High School in Decatur GA struggles with dyslexia, but is headed for college. Photo: Michael A. Schwarz, Education Week

Students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are the most likely to enroll in college. Most don’t identify themselves as disabled in college and receive no special supports.

A recent study found no difference in success rates for students who received help for learning disabilities and those who did not.

What helped was using the supports available to all students, such as tutoring, a math lab or a writing center. Seventy-four percent of students with learning disabilities who used these supports completed a degree compared with 35 percent of similar students who did not.

American Educator looks at teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Virginia lets cops arrest ‘disorderly’ kids

Kayleb Moon-Robinson was 11 years old last fall when he was charged with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can at his Virginia middle school. A few weeks later, the autistic sixth-grader tried to leave class with fellow students instead of waiting, as ordered. The same police officer grabbed the boy, who struggled to get away.

Kayleb Moon-Robinson

Kayleb Moon-Robinson

Kayleb was handcuffed and taken to juvenile court, where he was charged with a second disorderly conduct misdemeanor and felony assault on a police officer.

Virginia students are arrested in school at three times the national average, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The report ranks all the states on law-enforcement referrals. 

Many of those arrested are middle-school students 11 to 14 charged with disorderly conduct.

. . .  a 12-year-old girl was charged earlier this year with four misdemeanors — including obstruction of justice — or “clenching her fist” at a school cop who intervened in a school fight.

In Green County, Virginia, last October, a school cop handcuffed a 4-year-old who was throwing blocks and kicking at teachers and drove him to a sheriff’s department.

Stacey Doss, Kayleb’s mother and the daughter of a police officer herself,  said her son “doesn’t fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.”

She refused a plea deal reducing the felony to a misdemeanor because it required the 11-year-old to serve time in a detention center. Kayleb was found guilty of all charges this month. He’ll return to court in June for sentencing.

Doss said the judge had a deputy show him a cell, and told him if he gets into trouble again he could go straight to youth detention.

“He said that Kayleb had been handled with kid gloves. And that he understood that Kayleb had special needs, but that he needed to ‘man up,’ that he needed to behave better,” Doss said. “And that he needed to start controlling himself or that eventually they would start controlling him.”

Kayleb now attends an alternative school that’s sensitive to the autistic boy’s difficulty with sudden changes in routine, Doss said.

Parents choose special-ed charters

Charters designed for students with disabilities are renewing the “inclusion debate,” reports Arianna Prothero in Ed Week.

A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School. —Patrick Breen for Education Week
A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School.
—Patrick Breen for Education Week

Diana Diaz-Harrison opened a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism, and similar students. The Arizona Autism Charter School, which enrolls 90 students, “is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities,” writes Prothero.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That usually means mainstreaming students.

Some parents prefer a specialized school designed for their children’s needs.

About 100 charters are designed for special-ed students, according to the  Center for Education Reform. While some are disability-specific, others “serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.”

Several years ago, I visited charters designed for disabled and mainstream students in Michigan and California as a freelance writer on Unique Schools for Unique Students, a Center on Reinventing Public Education book on charters for special-needs students.

Not everyone thinks mainstreaming is the best strategy.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

Many students at Arizona Autism Charter School were doing poorly in mainstream classrooms, says Diaz-Harrison.

Special-ed co-teachers may function as “very expensive finger pointers,” writes Peter DeWitt, who’s taught inclusion classes, in Ed Week. The Goldilocks quandary remains: “How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized?”

Anti-vaxxers attack student documentary

Our society is “under-vaccinated,” argues Invisible Threat, a film made by broadcasting students at Carlsbad High near San Diego. It was completed more than a year ago, but anti-vaccine activists raised such a furor that few have seen the film, reports the Los Angeles Times. 

The high school’s PTA canceled an on-campus screening in May, fearing a protest.

Some of the students initially believed vaccines and autism were linked, they told the LA Times. As they researched the issue, they changed their minds.  “It was all social controversy. There was no science controversy,” said Allison DeGour, who will be a senior this fall.

Here’s a free trailer:

California’s whooping cough epidemic is escalating.

Affluent parents are the most likely to put their children — and others — at risk by avoiding vaccination. Latinos have high vaccination rates and less whooping cough, apparently because they tend to trust doctors’ advice.