One of the core deficits of autism is a deficit in relating to others socially. The inability to maintain successful interpersonal relationships also happens to be a core deficit of those with EBD.
Today, Jane showed me a flyer distributed by a Ms. Deering, who is trying to put together a social skills group for the summer for younger elementary aged students. She is offer 2 hour sessions over 5 weeks this summer. That would be a total of 10 hours of training, if a child committed to the full 5 weeks. She is also offering the same deal for older elementary aged kids. She plans on using social stories, role play, snack time and other teaching methods to help teach the hidden curriculum of social skills at a neighborhood church. The cost is $50 per session or $250 for all 5 sessions. This is becoming a bit of a side business for her.
Ms. Deering was Thomas' teacher when he was in preschool, and when it comes to working with kids with autism, she is second to none. Energetic, ambitious, driven, intelligent…I can't say enough good things about this gifted and talented teacher who also helps Thomas and the other kids at his Saturday karate class. She taught one of my first autism in-services, and I learned a lot from her. I still do when I get the chance.
There's a "but" coming, but let us bask in Ms. Deering's competent glow for a minute while I relate another, related, tale.
I spent an hour or so talking Mrs. Montel on the phone yesterday about her son, Darius. Darius is 4 years and being served under the autism eligibility and will be getting ESY services from yours truly. Big Boss called me the evening before to confirm the hours so she could arrange for a bus to pick him up from his daycare to take him to Middlepoint elementary school where I would deliver instruction in social skills and communication. I've never met young Darius, Middlepoint is not his regular school. Westpoint is. So, I'm scheduled to deliver services to a little boy with autism I've never met, in a school neither of us is familiar with using whatever expertise I can happen to dream up. The reality of ESY is so far removed from the ideal, it is ridiculous. The boy is destined to spend 2 hours a day, for 2 days a week crying, unless we can make it meaningful to him. Which means I may need to change the plan, haphazard as it is.
Mrs. Montel told me that ESY mysteriously materialized as an option at the end of the IEP meeting. She didn't even know what it was, when the preschool coordinator handed her a transportation request and sort of foisted it on her. Far be it from her to turn down a service when offered.
The problem with the current ESY arrangement and Mrs. Deering's social skills class are the same. Basically, taking a group of autistic kids and placing them in an unfamiliar environment which they will probably never see again, and then trying to teach social skills in isolation for very short periods of time and then releasing them back into their regular environment is not terribly productive.
One other core deficit of individuals with autism is the inability to generalize from one setting to another. And so, teaching outside of natural settings and routines is a hit or miss proposition at best. So I've been thinking about how to make the instruction I'm being paid to deliver functional and relevant. Mrs. Montel works full-time, hence Darius spending his summer in daycare. So it seems to me, that this daycare is the most relevent setting to deliver his services, with a component of it involving training the staff there and listening to their concerns. At 7 a.m., when Mrs. Montel drops her son off, I plan on meeting her and Darius and the daycare staff in order to see if we can work out something and the go to Big Boss to see if she can agree to it. Fact is, this ESY was not even supported by the data included in the request, which only consisted of his new IEP and old IEP mastery. He mastered 5 of 6 communication goals and 4 of 5 of his social goals! That's not to say he couldn't benefit from some additional attention and instruction– what kid wouldn't? But he stands a better chance at benefiting within the daycare or his home, which I would do if that were possible. And I might have to work some odd hours to make that so.
Ms. Deering's social skills idea is a fine one, and I don't doubt her skills. But if she were really going to benefit the kids more than her pocketbook, she would include a parent training component with this. Afterall, parents will be with them far more than her, and could deliver such instruction for many more hours across many more contexts than Ms. Deering could. All I'm saying is that Ms. Deering could deliver more valuable instruction by including the parents.
And that's a thought that has been burning in my mind lately. ESY has been set up in a very haphazard way, and efforts at delivering social skills training have been equally disjointed. One of the interventions for students with EBD that has been empirically validated has been parent training. I can see Pivotal Response Treatments (PRT) for individuals with autism eventually working its way up to empirical status by virtue of having parent involvement as its core features. And it is going to be one of main tools for working with young Darius if I can get permission to work with him, his parents and his preschool teachers in more natural settings.
I would also like to see these summer social skills groups offered in conjunction with teacher and para in-services, where the groups provide opportunities to practice in vivo, with actual kids, rather than just presenting material in a typical workshop environment. By offering practice and feedback, teachers and paras can actually use, practice and improve their instruction on-the-spot, while offering valuable instruction for the students, even if it is occurring in a setting that is not as naturalistic as a home or home school, making it more analogous to a summer camp. In fact, this is how Robert Koegel described how he provided training for paras in his latest book which I had him autograph at the autism conference.
I'm going to say one more thing about Ms. Deering's groups. It goes right back to my Fleecing article, in that the $50 per session price tag is going to exclude a number of kids. This is true of any variety of opportunities, like summer camps, karate, clubs and other activities. And I'm also go ahead and say, despite my admiration of Ms. Deering's considerable skills, that her service is providing not a lot of value compared to if she was training parents. The value is dubious by virtue of it being of such limited duration, conducted in isolation and over scattered and limited intervals throughout the summer. She is going to have the kids take social stories home and snack activities home with them after each session, so at least there is that much follow-up. But to put it another way, I will have to work 10 out of my 20 hours of ESY just to pay for one of my boys to take her social skills classes!