Navigating Autism in Public Education

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It is our job as speech-language pathologists to always provide the best possible services for students

Autism is a pervasive neurological developmental disorder uniquely manifested in those affected in the areas of behavior, communication and socialization.

According to the 2014 Pennsylvania Autism Census Update, the number of Pennsylvanians with autism receiving services has reached over 55,000 individuals. With such staggering numbers, it is important to continually research, innovate and determine creative solutions in education and intervention.

Enter Milo the Robot from RoboKind, an innovative solution utilized by the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) in one of its autism support classrooms within the Octorara Primary Learning Center.

Engaging Students

Milo is a humanoid robot that engages students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) through life-like facial expressions and research-based lessons that teach social behaviors and coping strategies. The students at Octorara Primary Center interacted with Milo throughout the year in a program piloting the robot’s use in the classroom, the first such program in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

The CCIU is one of 29 regional educational agencies established by law in Pennsylvania in 1971. Working between the Pennsylvania State Department of Education and the local school districts, the CCIU is a dynamic educational service agency that provides quality, innovative and cost-effective programs to enhance the lives of students and members of its local community. It currently offers over 108 programs for students, parents, teachers, school administrators and school directors. Specifically, the CCIU offers several autism support services providing child development and preschool services to promote social, communication and behavioral skills. It can be difficult for schools, teachers and parents to navigate the abundance of information available about autism and autism intervention. There are many interventions for ASD, yet not all are based in scientific research or proven to be effective.

The CCIU created a Training and Consultation (TaC) team to provide training and technical assistance to school district personnel to enhance a school’s ability to provide the best possible education for all students, including those with disabilities. TaC team members offer workshops throughout the year, assess district needs and develop programs and services tailored to meet specific needs of students, teachers and districts.

Specific Support

As a member of the CCIU’s Autism TaC team, I provide specific support for the educational needs of students diagnosed with ASD at the student, classroom and school-wide level. This support can include:

  • Observation and consultation services for specific students
  • Assistance in building a team process with student’s team
  • Providing recommendations regarding appropriate strategies and/or accommodations for use in the
  • general or special education classrooms settings
  • Guiding practice and support in implementing strategies
  • Training and staff development for school district personnel
  • Disability awareness training for students and staff
  • Dissemination of information regarding available resources
  • Recommendation of evidence-based practices (EBPs)

A large part of my role as a TaC staff is identifying and evaluating effective interventions for working with students with autism. The interventions found most effective when working with students with autism are EBPs. In fact, EBPs must be utilized to ensure practices are based on evidence of effectiveness by law.

The National Professional Development Center on ASD utilized a rigorous criterion to classify 27 focused interventions as EBPs in 2014. Websites such as www.autisminternetmodules.org, http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu and http://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/afirm-modules all provide users with EBPs on research for planning and monitoring interventions.

Technology-aided instruction and intervention is one of the 27 EBPs recommended for use by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. TaC members understand the value of utilizing technology to increase engagement, participation, on-task behavior, task initiation and task completion.

Socially-Assistive Robots

MiloThere are many articles related to the use of socially-assistive robotics and many companies that offer technology-aided instruction tools. The CCIU’s TaC team chose to incorporate Milo, because of the following features:

  • An HD camera that lets him see the students’ motions, facial expressions and gestures
  • Evidence Based practices as identified by the National Professional Development Council for students with ASD
  • Automated data collection on individual student progress ·
  • A full range facial muscles that express realistic human emotion

Milo was piloted within the autism support classroom at the Octorara Primary Learning Center, which serves children grades K-2. This site was chosen because of the exemplary programming already existing at the site, staff support within the autism support classroom and the proven benefits and outcomes of early intervention on social skill acquisition for young children with ASD.

The use of technology aided instruction and intervention (TAII), specifically a humanoid robot, has proven to be highly valuable to the students. Working with Milo allowed staff to build motivation into tasks and keep students focused, engaged and excited about learning.

As the year progressed, the students demonstrated an increase in both the amount of time they were able to participate in lessons, as well as the number of lessons they were able to complete within a session. Staff observed a decrease in transition time across sessions, meaning that students transition to sessions quicker in order to begin their instruction with Milo.

TaC team members have also observed students utilizing mastered skills during small group instruction and within their general education settings (recess, lunch and general education classrooms) as well as incidentally during periods of frustration. Parents have reported that their children are utilizing coping strategies and conversational skills in the community that have been taught within the curriculum.

Identifying & Expressing Emotions

Because students with ASD have trouble expressing emotion, communicating and socializing, this intervention has proven to be very effective.

Milo has helped the students focus on identifying specific emotions and has taught students to express those emotions. Students can now tell their teachers if they are happy, sad or hurt. Milo has helped students target, master and maintain specific social skills. The lessons are individualized to each student based on his or her areas of need and teacher feedback.

Incorporating Milo into the classroom has been a resounding success. The CCIU is currently exploring ways to incorporate this technology into other autism support classrooms throughout Chester County. Through incorporating the technology aided instruction and intervention EBP, students have been able to have their needs met by independently expressing themselves.

It is the goal of the CCIU and members of the TaC team to support students in obtaining the best quality life possible. I couldn’t think of a greater satisfaction or a better career.

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About Author

Amy Fichter

Amy Fichter is an autism training and consultation provider with the Chester County Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania.

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