Autism and education: Flexibility helps students thrive

Katie Krotz, 17, gives a hug to her Crossfit instructor, Sheron Smith, while attending a session of Smith’s “Special Warriors” Crossfit program in Hanover. (Shane Dunlap/The Evening Sun via AP)

HANOVER (AP) – Kaela Dutterer is a head banger.

More than a year ago, her mother, Heidi Dutterer, received concerned calls from her teacher about this behavior in the classroom. Kaela, the teacher said, was repeatedly banging her head against a cement floor.

The calls alarmed Dutterer – not just because she worried for her daughter’s safety, but because the calls, she felt, indicated that Kaela’s teacher couldn’t handle her.

Although schools around Hanover and Adams County offer specialized services for children with autism, parents, like Dutterer, often have to step in to advocate for their children.

Kaela, now 9, is non-verbal autistic. She can count and say letters and certain phrases, but she’s not conversational, her mother said. Dutterer transferred her daughter to Clearview Elementary School in Hanover because she felt the previous school’s teacher did not know how to handle her daughter’s behaviors.

“By all means, my daughter isn’t a saint,” Dutterer said. “She still bangs her head, but now (the teacher at Clearview) has a routine to make it stop. It’s only for a few minutes instead of longer.”

Kelly Krotz also knows the challenges of educating a child with autism. Her 17-year-old daughter, Katie, is not textbook autistic but does show autistic-like characteristics, Krotz said.

Katie has attended an autistic support classroom in York County since preschool, Krotz said. Although she has hit some bumps in the road, she doesn’t put the blame on the school.

“I’ve received phone calls to come pick my child up,” she said. “But I wouldn’t put it on the teacher – it’s whatever developmental level the child is on.”

Parents don’t always have the luxury of picking the right circumstances, Krotz said. But they can work with their children’s teachers to make sure they are receiving the best education possible.

Parents advocate for children

Autism is a group of developmental disabilities that causes communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The range on the spectrum is diverse – from kids like Kaela who are non-verbal to those who may have difficulty with social interaction but don’t show delays in cognitive development.

Brandy Crago, executive director of Shining Stars Therapeutic Ministries in Gettysburg, remembers a student of hers, an 8-year-old boy with autism, who never spoke. Then he said his first words.

“Apparently his parents and I were taking too long to get the horse ready, so the boy said to the horse, ‘Walk on,’ and we all started crying,” she said. “Now, he’s pretty verbal.”

Students with disabilities need support not only in a school setting, but also in a social and community atmosphere. The Hanover-Adams County area offers several outlets, including Shining Stars, where young people with special needs can receive extra support.

Kelly Krotz has helped her 17-year-old daughter, Katie, get involved in several of these activities. Katie, who is non-verbal and shows autism-like characteristics, has taken lessons at Shining Stars for eight years, in addition to taking part in a Special Warriors class at CrossFit Hanover.

The Shining Stars program uses horses to help people ages 3 and older work through physical, emotional and mental challenges. Crago learns the goals people are working on, like developing speech skills, learning to walk or strengthening muscles, and develops lessons with the horses that help students achieve those goals.

“It’s not just a pony ride,” she said. “We think about what happens through therapy.”

If kids have low muscle tone, for example, Crago puts them on a horse with a more exaggerated motion. The horses will work kids’ muscles that are rarely used and help hip rotation, which allows them to build up strength to walk, Crago said.

Krotz has seen the benefits firsthand through the years Katie has worked with the horses at Shining Stars.

“She gets so excited when the horse starts to trot,” Krotz said. “The horses seem to be a calming factor for her.”

The CrossFit special warriors program also helps.

Katie is non-verbal but high energy. She jumped and clapped during her session with CrossFit coach and creator of the Special Warriors program, Sheron Smith, expressing herself the best she could. Sometimes Smith had to reinforce her directions, but the two have mustered a special kind of friendship.

“That right there. Wasn’t that worth it?” Krotz shouted to Smith as Katie gave the instructor the biggest hug after her session finished. “She’s selective with her hugs. If you get one, you’re pretty special.”

During the 30-minute one-on-one sessions, Smith teaches kids and adults with disabilities to do the same exercises people work on in a typical CrossFit class: flip tires, jump rope and box jump.

Smith created the program after experiencing special needs kids in her home-run daycare. She thought with all the energy the kids showed, why not have them relieve it at a gym?

Although many exercises are modified to fit students’ abilities, Smith finds the physical activity helps stimulate other kinds of progress for her students.

“When these kids are up and moving, they seem to be able to do things that they haven’t been able to do,” she said.

Krotz believes the Special Warriors class givers her daughter an outlet for social activity.

“Sheron’s aware of her individual needs,” Krotz said. “(Katie) just loves Sheron. She just comes in and has a good time; Sheron’s her reinforcer.”

Once every few months, Krotz may see Katie roll a ball back and forth with Smith like nothing’s wrong, she said.

“It can take six months for me to throw a ball at a kid’s chest, and one day they finally reach out and catch it,” said Smith. “You have to be willing to adapt.”

This wide range of symptoms means parents, like Dutterer and Krotz, have to fight for their children’s unique needs, and educators have to stay flexible to help them.

Kaela lives in the Littlestown Area School District, which only offers emotional support classrooms, not autistic support classrooms, Supt. Chris Bigger said. For this reason, Kaela was transferred to the closest district that offers the program she needed: Hanover.

Hanover Public School District offers strategies to address the needs of students with disabilities, said Supt. John Scola. But if a student’s need is based in a program Hanover doesn’t offer, the district calls Lincoln Intermediate Unit (LIU), a service provider for students with special needs.

LIU teachers work within district classrooms or at other facilities throughout Adams, Franklin and York counties, including the York Learning Center or Gettysburg Outlets, said Bettie Bertram, director of special education at LIU.

“We do everything we can to help students be successful,” Scola said. “That’s the bottom line.”

After Hanover contacts LIU, it works with teachers there to set an appropriate placement for the child. The Hanover Public School District pays the student’s LIU tuition, Scola said.

“When you start the process and you’re not sure what’s going on, you think everyone has the best interest of your kid,” Dutterer said. “But then you hear things like, ‘She can’t handle the instruction,’ and then you’re getting calls …”

Katie, now a senior in LIU, had behavioral problems in class until she received a personal care assistant at age 12, Krotz said. Krotz didn’t know a personal care assistant was an option for her daughter until she attended a meeting with faculty and professionals. Kaela is now in third grade in an LIU autistic support classroom at Clearview Elementary School. Her mother moved her from her previous school because she felt her daughter received little to no academic training in the years she attended there.

“I should have known about the PCA from day one to have it under control,” she said. “But it’s a lack of education on the parents. There’s no booklet on how to raise special needs kids.”

After Katie’s teacher filled out mounds of paperwork, Krotz said, her daughter received an assistant to tend to her personal needs while other members of the therapeutic support staff worked on behavioral issues.

Krotz noticed the calls to pick up her daughter phased out over time with this change.

“I’m all right with the school system,” Krotz said. “I like where (Katie) is. We’re in a good place, and the teacher shares a lot of information with us on how she’s doing.”

Dutterer learned she had to fight for her daughter after hearing many complaints from teachers.

For example, one teacher at Kaela’s old school sometimes put Kaela in a supply closet that was turned into a movie room, Dutterer said. It included a bean bag chair and a TV that played movies to occupy her daughter. Dutterer felt the teacher was using the room as a way to avoid dealing with Kaela when she didn’t know how to deal with her.

“Every day the teacher called and said there were problems with Kaela,” Dutterer said.

Some classrooms do have a location where students can go to de-escalate, Bertram said. It is not used as a timeout but rather as a place for a child to safely calm down. Each student’s situation and behavior determines the amount of time before he or she returns to instruction, she said.

“The students are taught replacement behaviors and de-escalation techniques as part of their educational programming if they struggle with behavior,” Betram said, “so that the students are not removed from the educational setting for long.”

Regardless of the reasoning, Dutterer did not like the way the teacher handled Kaela’s problems.

After two and a half years of getting calls from the teacher saying, “Something’s wrong come pick her up,” Dutterer had had enough. She set up meetings with faculty and other officials to get what she felt was the best education for Kaela’s situation.

By March 2015, educators had transferred Kaela to Clearview Elementary and put her in a classroom with a different learning aide.

‘Bag of tricks’ for special education teachers

Teachers of students with special needs must hold a certification in special education, said Bertram. This allows them to provide instruction to any student with a disability. Although parents might grow frustrated with repeated phone calls and complaints about their children’s behavior, special needs teachers around Hanover and Adams County are constantly training to prepare themselves for any situation children might bring to their classrooms.

However, their level of training will vary based on the experiences they had student teaching, previous work assignments and the number of years they have been an educator, she said.

LIU’s partnership with the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network provides the LIU with a specialized team to help educate teachers. These professionals come into LIU routinely during the course of the school year and work with teachers, even if they think they don’t need anymore training, Bertram said.

For teachers like Tracey Coppersmith, continuous training is crucial, even after 17 years working in education.

After teaching with LIU for 11 years, Coppersmith transferred to teach kindergarten and first grade in a learning support classroom at South Western. She still, she said, looks for opportunities to improve.

Coppersmith knows her students’ behaviors can change on a daily basis, which is why she has a “bag of tricks” – teaching strategies – from which she can pull for each unique situation with a student.

“Additional layers of support are in place for our complex need students,” Bertram said. “We do feel that our teachers are prepared and supported.”

For example, Coppersmith recently signed up for South Western’s summer workshop that covers topics such as working well with co-teachers, handling the amounts of paperwork involved in educating special-needs students and knowing special education laws, she said.

At LIU, teachers have easy access to experts in psychology, curriculum, behavior and instruction to help on the behavioral level. LIU also seeks input from physicians and other outside professionals when needed.

“We have to do so many hours of training each year to hold our certificate,” Coppersmith said.

“You have to be flexible and be able to think on your feet very quickly,” she said. “You have to figure out how to best work through behavioral concerns and preserve the educational environment for other students in the classroom.”

One strategy Coppersmith uses is to ignore negative situations because some students act out for attention. She also counts or uses timers to give her students boundaries when they’re faced with a choice, she said, and awards tickets to the school store for students’ good behavior.

Deciding how best to handle a situation is only one of the tasks that makes up Coppersmith’s day. She must instruct and analyze how students are completing skills and make changes accordingly. She also has to manage her co-teachers, continuously document students’ progress and communicate with parents and administrators.

The level of multitasking can prove stressful at times, Coppersmith said, but she knows she was meant for this career and always finds rewarding moments.

“When (students) have a sense of mastery and independence of a skill, it’s very rewarding,” she said. “It’s so much for us with planning, adapting the curriculum and the additional support staff; there’s a lot that goes into it. When you finally see them make that progress, it helps keep you going.”