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Uncovering the mysteries of autism

POULSBO — William Summers, 7, planted his feet and began to scream loudly and wave his arms.

“I hate this school!” he exclaimed in his small classroom at Poulsbo Elementary. “I hate you. I hate everybody!”

William’s tantrums were a daily occurrence at school since he was in the first grade and were seemingly unstoppable. Because his behavior interfered with his and other students’ ability to learn, William was sent home — every day.

He had never made it through a full school day. Then he met Nancy Pack.

When William transferred to Poulsbo Elementary, Pack, his new teacher, wouldn’t send him home. Instead, she had a new approach to his behavior.

When William threw a tantrum on his first day, Pack sat quietly and waited for signs of stopping. When he did, she asked calmly: “Are you all done?”

William’s response was to continue his outrageous behavior, yelling and shouting for an additional 45 minutes.

“I’m going to kill you! I’m gonna blow up the school!” he screamed.

Pack asked him one more time if he was finished, and he said quietly, “Yes.”

Using a simple strategy, and a little patience, Pack had a breakthrough with William. His outbursts soon became shorter and would eventually cease. He began to navigate through his day at school with greater ease.

William’s behavior was as mysterious as his diagnosis — autistic.

When he was diagnosed at age 7, the school district and William’s parents decided to transfer him to Poulsbo Elementary School in hopes that a new program developed by Pack would help him become more successful both academically and socially.

A ‘bumper crop’

of autistic students

In 2000, there was no program designed to accommodate children diagnosed with autism in the North Kitsap School District. Yet, the number of students being diagnosed in the area was growing.

“It looked like we had a bumper crop of students with autism,” said Pack, who has taught in North Kitsap for 28 years.

The cause of autism is still largely unknown but the number of children diagnosed nationally is significantly rising.

Some of the nation’s most advanced research on autism is being conducted at Project Developmentally Appropriate Treatment for Autism (DATA) at the University of Washington. According to the UW, autism is a “neurologically-based developmental disability.” It has come to be known as a “spectrum” disorder because of its varying effects and symptoms. Autism manifests itself in a child’s life primarily through “core deficits” in social interactions, communication and imagination. As a result, daily social interactions can be very frustrating.

This frustration can lead to “meltdowns” like the ones that William had until he moved to Poulsbo Elementary. Meltdowns occur when autistic children face unpredictable environments, which are commonplace in school.

Pack began a pre-school program for autistic children four years ago at Wolfle Elementary. Through training in the latest methods, she became an expert in new techniques developed at UW, and implemented them in her classroom. She’s now one of 12 Regional Autism Facilitator Coordinators in the state of Washington.

“Nothing we do is canned,” Pack said, referring to the program’s non-use of textbooks or set methods of education.

“Ms. Pack pulls from so many research-based programs,” said Barb Haga, a paraeducator of four years in Pack’s classroom. “It’s like a puzzle. People are amazed by the program and its successes.”

As her students got older, Pack moved the program into Poulsbo Elementary’s Room No. 3. Her class is now composed of 14 autistic students — 11 boys and three girls — ranging in ages from preschool to fourth grade.

Throughout the day, Pack’s students work with paraeducators who help them in their special education classroom as well as their general education classroom.

“It’s kind of like an airport in here,” said Pack, referring to her classroom. “Kids are flying in and flying out.”

“The goal is to integrate them (into the general education classroom) and give them the tools to do that,” said Jan Hellenga, a paraeducator for two years at Poulsbo Elementary. “It’s thrilling to make a breakthrough.”

In the morning, many of the students spend time in their general education classrooms. Their afternoons tend to be spent in Pack’s classroom, working on improving their existing core deficits — social and language skills.

William’s progress

Now in fourth grade, nearly two years after joining Pack’s program, William, 8, is designated as a “fully-included student” and has a limited use for Pack’s classroom.

After his initial 45 minute meltdown, Pack created a graph for William in September of 2002. At zero on the chart was “45 minutes.”

Pack asked William how long he thought other children his age threw tantrums. William said around two minutes.

So, Pack took William’s hand and together they drew a line from 45 minutes all the way down to two minutes. On the bottom of the chart they wrote the months of the school year, so that William could work toward the much-more brief, two-minute meltdown by school’s end in June.

William set a pace far beyond Pack’s expectations to conquer his challenge. As the tantrums got shorter, he was able to see increased time in his general education classroom with peers. The lesson learned, Pack said, was that the more William was able to adapt to an unpredictable environment — sometimes impossible to an autistic child — the more he could include himself in his general classroom.

“We’ve taught (the students with autism) to be more flexible,” Pack said. “Classrooms can be busy visually and audibly. (My students have) been taught that they are still safe.”

John Wilson, William’s general education teacher, said William has made dramatic improvement this year.

“We’ve seen him become more independent and make better choices,” Wilson said. “He’s more aware of things that are socially acceptable and unacceptable.”

If William has a meltdown in Wilson’s class, he is allowed to excuse himself and go to Pack’s classroom to calm down. As a consequence of his behavior, he must apologize to Mr. Wilson, though William has only had to apologize once this year.

The bottom line, Pack and Wilson agree, is that students diagnosed with autism benefit from interacting with their peers just as any student would. By helping autistic students handle the unpredictably of the average classroom, they can lead less stressful lives — both now and when they become adults.

William comes full circle

William still visits Pack’s classroom in the afternoons to play on the computers or with his toy tanks and cars. He’s not really sure why he needs to go to Pack’s room anymore.

“I don’t know why I’m in here with the little kids,” he said. But added he knows that Room No. 3 offers a safe place should he need it.

When asked by Pack why he needs a safe place to go when he is at school, William responded quickly.

“I used to get mad sometimes,” he remarked.

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