Tag Archives: autism

Create Your Own Tactile Schedule

Anne M. Zachry, M.A.

I have the opportunity to work directly with an adult special education student as part of his compensatory education program, which I am designing, implementing, and supervising. It’s an opportunity to try my own ideas based on the available assessment data and see how they work. This student has autism and vision impairment, so the tools that typically would be used to teach in light of his autism do not always work in light of his vision loss.

One of the most common teaching tools used with students who experience any number of developmental disorders is the visual schedule.  Visual schedules are used to take individual students or groups of students through a routine that is expected to play out over time in a specific order of events.  It can be a daily schedule, a weekly schedule, or an activity-specific schedule.

Tactile schedule for throwing a dinner party.

Visual schedules are also good for illustrating the steps in a task analysis. A task analysis is a process in which the individual steps of a task are broken down and taught in sequence. It is a method developed by and frequently used in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

A task analysis really has to be tailored to the ability of the individual who needs to understand it. I was creating a task analysis of the steps to throwing a dinner party. Throwing a dinner party was the best way for me to tie all of my student’s functional academic goals into a single activity. That way, I could concurrently instruct towards his goal throughout a given session.

I couldn’t put too many steps in the tactile schedule or it would be too much for my student to process at once and would incline him to develop more rigid rules about the activity than appropriate, but I could order the general tasks that had to be performed in sequence. Due to his autism, my student has a tendency to become ritualized to activities that are done the exact same way every time.

So, for example, we couldn’t cook spaghetti every time we met or he’d never generalize the cooking concepts to other foods. Therefore, the schedule, which is pictured here, simply says, “Cook food,” rather than specify which foods are to be cooked.

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The Approaching End of a Heartbreaking Era

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When the Education of All Handicapped Children’s Act (EAHCA) was enacted as PL94-142 in 1975, it was in the face of enormous opposition from school district administrators and their attorneys who were actively refusing to enroll children with disabilities in our nation’s public schools. Many have remained employed in public education, stewing in their own bile over their legal “loss” while begrudgingly enrolling students with special needs.

The EAHCA was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, which has, itself, been reauthorized twice since then, the last reauthorization being in 2004. Clearly, Congress has no intention of returning to a time when discriminating against those with disabilities was perfectly acceptable.

I don’t know how many of you have experienced an employment situation in which people have been required to do something that they opposed, but it’s been my experience that some people in this position are more likely to sabotage any attempts to do things differently to “prove” it was a bad idea than to willingly go with the program. Some people are just sore losers.

In short, you’re not likely to get buy-in from people who had to be Court-ordered or required by regulation to do the ethical and responsible thing. It says something, anyway, about a person’s character when he/she forgoes ethical solutions for whatever reasons and, therefore, requires enforceable regulations that dictate what his/her behavior should be. Some peoples’ characters create a situation in which the behaviors normally associated with common sense and ethics become subject to regulation.

This is not specific to special education or the legal practices that surround it. This is human nature. Somewhere out there in the world is the person who justified warning labels on suppositories that advise they are not meant for oral consumption. Some people’s functional skills in various aspects of life, for whatever reasons, are seriously limited.

People tend not to make improvements when forced to, particularly when they perceive the improvements as a threat to their familiar, comfortable, self-serving routines. This, too, is human nature.

The problem in special education is that, following the passage of the EAHCA, too many people with chips on their shoulders were left over the decades in positions of authority in public education, passing their “insight” onto the people they were responsible for training and stacking the deck against the success of special education. In other words, ever since the passage of the EAHCA in 1975, there have been career public education administrators undermining the effectiveness of special education in order to win an argument rather than educate children, the latter of which being what we actually pay them six-figure salaries at public expense to do.

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Mental Health Services for ASDs

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Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (Source: Flickr)

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (“ASDs”), including Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (“PDD-NOS”), are often challenged by anxiety, which is an emotional health need. Many school districts contract with county mental health agencies or other providers for forms of individual psychotherapy services that may not be appropriate for some students with ASDs. Further, they may have no other service to offer to address ASD-related anxiety issues.

To add to the confusion, many county mental health agencies have recently re-identified themselves as county behavioral health agencies, yet they do not provide Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”) or any other type of peer-reviewed behavioral intervention. ABA is supported by research to be effective in not only contending with undesired behaviors among persons with ASDs but also in providing explicit instruction to teach the skills these individuals lack.

Explicit instruction in social skills such as greetings, farewells, maintaining a topic of conversation chosen by another person, initiating conversations, and other aspects of human interaction have to taught to many children with ASDs as explicit, scripted procedures. Those procedures can then be generalized into real life by reinforcing them when they occur in natural settings and pointing out to the individual, in vivo, when he/she has engaged in the steps of the procedure so that he/she learns to recognize social contexts in which each script is to be applied.  Eventually, it becomes a learned, rehearsed strategy to deal with specific types of situations.

The degree to which persons with ASDs can master various scripted procedures, or even need this level of support, varies from individual to individual. The same for the degree to which someone with an ASD can generalize knowledge from one context to another, such as from the instructional setting to real life.  It’s called a spectrum disorder for a reason. The range of severity between mild and severe is quite broad and anyone can fall anywhere along it.

Traditional “talk therapy” that promotes developing one’s insight and insight into other people’s perspectives to sort out one’s issues is not necessarily appropriate for some individuals with ASDs. Because there are so many differences among people with ASDs, it’s not fair to say that no one with an ASD can benefit from traditional talk therapy. But, it is safe to say that there are a significant number of students with ASDs who truly cannot benefit from traditional talk therapy but still have emotional health needs that require mental health services as part of their special education programs.

The matter comes down to, “What form of mental health services are appropriate for students in special education who have ASDs and require mental health services in order to benefit from their IEPs?” Well, as with anything in special education, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach and say one specific type of program will fix everything for everybody. For one thing, no such statement will ever be true; learners with disabilities, even within a population impacted by the same condition, are too diverse for one-size-fits-all programming. Federal law requires individualized programming for this very reason.

That said, there are certain approaches that are generally known to be more effective with students who have ASDs than others. These may work with many students with ASDs, but whether or not they will be effective with an individual student really depends on that student.  The following are possible methods by which effective mental health services can be delivered to some persons challenged by anxiety associated with ASDs.

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Reconciling the Tragedy of Newtown, CT

Connecticut School ShootingThis is one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever had to write, but the challenges it presents to me are nothing compared to what the families of Adam Lanza and his shooting victims continue to suffer, as well as their communities. Maybe I’m feeling a touch of survivor’s guilt. Unlike the dead, I still have the ability to soldier on.

When I initially heard the news, it was over brunch with a colleague and our mutual client. My colleague saw the news on his smart phone and let out an audible, emotional gasp. When he told us what had happened, I didn’t feel anything at all; it was just information and wasn’t real to me, yet.

I was still trying to assimilate everything that had happened in the IEP meeting we’d all been in earlier that morning on the tail of a grueling week that had left me already emotionally exhausted. A mass murder on top of that was evidently more than what my nervous system could handle at the time. Since then, however, I’ve been following the news and the weight of the situation has sunk in quite deeply, now. I can’t read about the victims without tearing up.

An event like this hits me from every side because I have devoted my career to protecting children’s educational and civil rights. Among those is certainly the right to attend a safe learning environment that fosters their development and growth.

On the other hand, the evidence that has been publicized thus far reveals that Adam Lanza was disabled, possibly with a personality disorder, possibly with an autism spectrum disorder. The latter sounds more likely based on the descriptions given of him, though unless someone who has actually diagnosed him is permitted to disclose his confidential patient information, we’ll never really know.

What the reports from those who encountered Adam confirm was that he was socially awkward and withdrawn and that he evidently didn’t process physical pain the ways other people do, which put him at risk of unwittingly hurting himself during high-risk activities, such as soldering electronics. That sounds a lot like a sensory integration problem to me, which is not uncommon among those challenged by autism, along with the social skills deficits he was also reported to suffer.

Regardless of his diagnoses, it was clear to the outside observers who encountered him that he was impaired. And, while none of the lay people interviewed by the media thus far can point to anything that would have tipped them off that this atrocity was going to happen, we are not privy to what any therapists or others who interacted with him on a professional level may have had reason to fear from him.

Even if no one saw this coming, the fact that Adam remained socially impaired into adulthood reflects a lack of adequate intervention when he was younger, particularly given the peer-reviewed research regarding what works with children challenged by autism. The reports from those who encountered him in high school describe a young man who couldn’t relate to other people, would engage in elopement, and experienced meltdowns at school that “required” his mother to come to school and help calm him back down. The Associated Press described these latter experiences as “… crises only a mother could solve …” which reflects an utter failure with respect to school-based behavioral interventions and a gross lack of understanding regarding parental ability versus the mandated duties of the public education system.

I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve represented whose schools have chosen to call parents away from their jobs in the middle of the day – and parents who have lost their jobs as a result – because it was less costly to the local education agencies to call the parents to come intervene than to staff these students’ programs with expert personnel. Unless the parent has a BCBA, the parent is not the person to call when behavioral problems occur and it is unethical and unlawful for school districts to shift that burden onto parents.

The special education advocate in me finds this outrageous and inexcusable. Just because no one necessarily saw Adam’s potential for murder when he was a public education student with special needs is no excuse for having failed to serve him when the opportunity presented itself to do so. When given the opportunity to prevent this from happening, nothing appropriately effective was done. The burden was shifted to his mother, who ultimately became his first murder victim. Clearly, this was not a crisis that only a non-expert, gun-collecting mother could solve.

While I’ve yet to see evidence that Adam was on an IEP while in public school, based on the descriptions given of him in the media by those who knew him at the time, if he wasn’t on an IEP, it was the world’s biggest child find violation. I have to believe he was on an IEP when he was a public school student.

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“Velcro® Aide” vs. Learning Facilitator

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There is a realm of conflict surrounding the use of 1:1 aides in special education and many local education agencies (“LEAs”) have developed their own assessment protocols to determine when a child really needs an aide to try and rein in this issue.

Sometimes these assessments just turn into a means of justifying to the parents a decision against aide support that was actually made by the LEA for fiscal reasons, so there are still issues with these types of aide assessments that need to be worked out.

Because these are LEA-made evaluations that are not bound by regulation and they aren’t scientifically validated standardized tests, LEAs can make them up however they want and some are better at researching best practices than others. But, even if it’s the best aide assessment in the world, none of that makes any difference if the aide support a child is given isn’t used well.

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Parents in Crisis Can Be Vulnerable to Predators

There has been a tremendous movement among a group of special education lay advocates across the United States and beyond to get to the bottom of a very troubling situation involving an individual who claims to be a highly successful and renowned special education advocate but whose claims cannot be substantiated and, in fact, appears to have defrauded a number of parents of children with special needs, particularly targeting high-profile autism-related seclusion and restraint cases. This individual, who goes by the name of Michael E. Robinson, Sr., is suspected of being located in Redding, California, based on the physical location where the phone numbers he gives out are installed.

Robinson was previously located in Hawaii, so it seems. He claims to be located in Washington, DC, Arizona, Hawaii, and California. He has claimed to be a lobbyist (not registered); a special education lay advocate and/or attorney (he’s claimed both) with years of experience with due process cases and litigation going all the way to federal court (no record of him involved in any special education due process or court cases could be found); a medical doctor (there is an autism specialist also named Michael Robinson whose work Michael E. Robinson, Sr. has attempted to claim as his own); and, of all things, a NASCAR racer.

He’s also claimed that he has epilepsy and was given a wolf as a service animal because wolves can allegedly detect the onset of a seizure before it happens, thereby making them superior service animals – forget the fact that it’s not legal to have a wolf as a service animal. And on and on. His behavior seems indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder and an absolute disregard for the consequences of what he is doing.

It’s easy now that so many people have come out of the woodwork to share their Michael E. Robinson, Sr. stories and much of his story has now been pieced together to look at the big picture and reach the conclusion that Robinson is up to no good. He’s solicited money from several parents, apparently. He’s also requested copies of legal documents in individual student’s cases from parents to allegedly use for his “lobbying” efforts, only to turn around and copy and paste from these documents to attempt to misrepresent the work of other advocates and attorneys as his own to his next set of victims.

His M.O. is apparently to collect enough information from past cases to be able to initially convince parents in newly developing cases – usually horrific situations in which the parents are in dire need of technical assistance – that he is experienced and can help them. He commiserates with them over the injustices they have suffered and tells them not to worry because he’s going to take care of things for them. Then he takes whatever money they’ve given him and copies of their records and is never heard from by them again. He seems to particularly seek out single mothers who are emotionally vulnerable as they fight to protect their children with disabilities from harm and have little to no support from their children’s fathers.

As a special education lay advocate for over 18 years and a paralegal in special education-related litigation for the last 5 years, I have to say that the prospect of someone using special education lay advocacy as a vehicle for running a con is particularly disturbing. While it’s expected that different advocates have different styles and ways of going about things, this is well beyond anything like that.

What is so damaging is that the child who was in such dire need that his/her case caught Robinson’s eye continues to go unserved. Robinson’s advocacy, such as it is, fails to achieve appropriate outcomes, based on the reports coming in from families who claim to have been taken advantage of by him.

This hurts children with special needs overall by undermining the credibility of lay advocates everywhere. Every time I go into a school district in which I’ve never advocated before, I find myself having to prove that I’m not some crazy person or someone with an axe to grind. The expectation maintained by many school districts is that all advocates are adversarial jerks and a righteous pain in the keister. It usually takes months of working with an IEP team in a district to which I am new before people finally figure out that I’m just trying to solve problems and facilitate a rebuilding of trust between the school district and the student’s family and that I’m only going to pursue accountability if the school district personnel keep failing to perform their mandated duties.

But, when I have to follow behind someone calling him- or herself an advocate who has behaved disreputably, demonstrated a clear lack of knowledge regarding what constitutes an appropriate IEP, and antagonized the situation to such an extent that a power struggle has ensued between him/her and the school district, I am put at a tremendous disadvantage. The time I have to invest in proving that I’m not going to do the same thing is time that could have otherwise been invested in properly educating my client.

I want to make clear, though, that very few advocates are so lacking in knowledge and so adversarial that they do more harm than good. Mr. Robinson is the exception, not the rule. Nonetheless, parents need to be diligent about making sure that whoever represents them is on the up and up. When I meet with parents for the first time, they will often tell me that they Googled me beforehand. I’m totally okay with that; there’s a pretty good chance that I Googled them, too. Advocates have to protect themselves from shiesters, as well.

To read more about the evidence compiled against Michael E. Robinson, Sr., see: