Education

Giant steps for autistic kids

BRENDA BRANSWELL October 5 1998
Education

Giant steps for autistic kids

BRENDA BRANSWELL October 5 1998

Giant steps for autistic kids

Education

BRENDA BRANSWELL

When Yolande L.’s son was only a toddler, he showed signs of being precocious. At 3, he could put together a 50-piece puzzle and read Dr. Seuss on his own. “In the beginning, we thought: ‘Hey, this is a brilliant kid,’ ” says Yolande, a Montreal physiotherapist. Her son was smart—but he also exhibited some curious behavior. He spoke in vague, incomplete sentences and struggled to understand the meaning of the word “yes.” He also showed no interest in playing with other children; when he arranged Lego, it was always in an identical pattern. “I just felt there was something wrong,” says Yolande, who does not want her family name published to shield her son’s privacy. After consulting several doctors, she and her husband, an engineer, finally received the diagnosis: their son, now 12, had mild symptoms of autism, a developmental disability stemming from a neurological disorder. Worried that he could not cope in a regular class, Yolande enrolled her son at age 4 in an innovative Montreal school for autistic children called Giant Steps. “I knew he needed a lot of one-to-one,” says Yolande, “and I knew that the [regular] school would never be able to furnish that.”

Most of the country’s estimated 5,000 autistic children attend public schools—in specialized or mainstream classes, or a combination of both. But the autistic present a special challenge to cash-strapped public schools. Typically, autistic children have problems speaking and interacting with others. What for most people is background

Play therapy helps children overwhelmed by sounds and touch

noise or a minor physical sensation—the rub of a wool sweater, for example—can overwhelm their senses. “Autism is probably the hardest disability for the school system to handle,” allows Don Reilly, a regional vice-president of the Ontario Public School Board Association and a former superintendent of special education.

The lifeline for Yolande’s family and others began 17 years ago as an afternoon music, language and play program for withdrawn autistic children. Founded by music therapist Darlene Berringer, Giant Steps became a full-fledged school with government

sponsorship in 1984 and now has satellite schools in Toronto and Kamloops, B.C., as well as in the United States and Australia. The school combines an academic and therapeutic approach to break through the sensory barriers of a disorder that can cause children to wall themselves off in silence or hurt themselves and others in their frustration to communicate. Located in the City of Westmount on the border of downtown Montreal, the school is a refuge for 75 Englishand French-speaking students with autistic symptoms from mild to severe.

The school itself is ablaze with color. The walls are lined with bright student-made paintings. The occupational therapy room has a swing and a tub of balls to help students relax and develop co-ordination. On a recent visit, fourand five-year-olds counted along with a teacher. When they reached the number three, they dragged out the sound before excitedly yelling “Stop” on a cue from their instructor. ‘You want to give them the inhibition factor because they don’t know how to stop,” explains Berringer, who won a Governor General’s Medal in 1993 for her work. Prior to being integrated into nearby schools, the students are taught a variety of social and learning skills as well as music therapy to help them deal with

sound. In some cases a student can be wrapped in a blanket and settled in a beanbag chair with soft music to help them relax. Then, more sounds are added, Berringer says: “It is almost like retraining the brain.” With its one-to-one staff-child ratio, the program isn’t cheap: it costs the school roughly $27,000 a year per student, of which the Quebec ministry of education pays approximately $17,000. Parents and donors make up the rest.

Giant Steps has a waiting list of hundreds from around the world seeking to get into the program. After a group of Kamloops families pleaded for help, Berringer set up a satellite school there in 1989. Lorraine Ward, a West Vancouver accountant, and her nine-year-old son Willie make the fourhour commute to Kamloops every week. Ward says she sought out the program “because public school was a very painful ordeal” for her son, largely due to the noise level. He was often removed from class for

acting out his frustrations, says Ward; he also pinched his teacher’s aide and started biting. “Right now,” adds Ward, these kids “are just thrown into the mainstream and they’re not successful. It’s not working for anybody—not for those special-needs kids or the regular kids or the teachers.”

Deborah Pugh, program director at the Autism Society of British Columbia argues that autistic preschoolers should have at least 20 hours of one-on-one language therapy a week. “Autism is all about not knowing the social cues,” says Pugh. If children are put in a social environment without the means of communicating, she says, “most kids either explode or they just totally withdraw.”

Giant Steps has its share of critics. One oft-cited charge is that the school has never conducted a complete evaluation to test the success of its graduates. Berringer says they lack the funds to pay for a study them-

selves. Peter Zwack, head of the Quebec Society for Autism, praises the Montreal school on several fronts, but he argues that some behavioral approaches are more effective, particularly the so-called Lovaas treatment developed initially by Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas at the University of California at Los Angeles during the 1960s. The Lovaas approach involves training children to perform simple everyday tasks in small components before moving on to more complex skills such as language. It has some ardent supporters. Michelle Auton, whose fiveyear-old son Connor suffers from autism, launched a class action suit against the B.C. government in August on behalf of 130 families after the ministry of health refused to fund the Lovaas treatment for which the families have been paying privately.

Predictably, parents have differing views on what is best for their children. But the one fact that experts seem to agree on is the need for early intervention. “I’m a fierce proponent,” says Dr. Constance Lalinec, a psychologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Lalinec assesses toddlers with developmental delays and behavioral problems, many of whom have pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD, of which autism is a subset. She also works with parents of children with PDD to teach them how £ to deal with tantrums § and head-banging, and I how to improve their S children’s social and lany guage skills. The early £ years are crucial, says I Lalinec, because the £ brain is more malleable in young children. Language skills are the key to social success later in life, adds Dr. Peter Szatmari, a professor of psychiatry at the Centre for the Studies of Children at Risk at McMaster University. “If you can improve the capacity for developing language through early intervention,” he says, “you really do seem to be able to make a profound impact on their outcome several years later.”

At Giant Steps, integrating autistic students into community schools can take from three months to two years. For Yolande’s son, integration began in kindergarten. He was accompanied by his “shadow,” a teacher’s aide from Giant Steps. By Grade 3, he was on his own in a regular class. And Yolande maintains that he is thriving: last June at his graduation ceremony from elementary school he won an award in French. His obsessive behavior is largely eliminated and he now has friends. In his mom’s view, he has taken a giant step. □