On Jan. 5 and 6, Dr. Ron Leaf of the Autism Partnership presented a workshop on autism to Hamilton County teachers.
Dr. Leaf advised the attendants to do away with visual cues, communication devices, schedules, sensory aids, and downtime in favor of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a method that typically requires 40 hours per week of one-on-one instruction. He also condemned using rewards, such as food, and then followed this a short time later with a video of him giving chocolate to a child in Colombia in order to help stop his self-destructive behavior.
While there is controversy over a few of these suggestions (everyone needs downtime, and we all have individual coping methods when we experience stress), my concern is not about Dr. Leaf or ABA. It is about how teachers will use this information, especially when they do not have the supports or resources to follow through with Dr. Leaf's program. It is as unethical as providing a blind child books written in Braille without first providing a qualified Braille instructor.
Dr. Leaf has the luxury of a full staff and the ability to choose his clients. I admire his work and the progress of his students, but I have to ask a rather practical question: How will this help students with autism in Hamilton County schools, where there is not the low student-to-teacher ratio that ABA requires, and services must be provided to all who are eligible? ABA is a respectable method, and autism training is something that teachers desperately need; however, the school system should not waste money on trainings it will not use. If Hamilton County is now embracing and budgeting for ABA, that is wonderful. I do not see that happening after it paid over $2 million in legal and expert witness fees in the Zachary Deal case, $48,062.50 of which went to Dr. Leaf. I hope that the teachers who are receiving this training realize that taking away methods that have helped children with autism in the past, such as schedules and visual cues, without following the structured ABA program, will be a major disservice to the students.
Social worker and mother of a child with autism
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The Hamilton County School system is famous, or should I say infamous for the lack of resources and funding for children with disabilities. The Deal family and many other courageous people before them have attempted to force this entity to create equal access to public education for children with learning differences. Most parents just give up and home school, because no family can afford to legally challenge this public entity with a legal war chest equal to the tax base. IDEA is suppose to ensure that these children receive services to ensure equal access to public education.
The TN Dept. of Education child counts for autism indicate that the public school system currently serves about 100 children under the category of autism. Hamilton County must have the lowest incidence of autism in the world, because the rate of autism is about 1 in 110 children. So where are the children with autism? They are home schooling, because they simply do not receive the minimum level services with highly trained staff. The placement generally fails as a result.
You are correct the Exceptional Education Department of the Hamilton County Schools is not provided with the resources to do an ABA program. This is a huge disservice to both society and these children, that will have to be revisited.
Mom of Son with Autism
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As the parent of a child with autism served by Hamilton County, I was thrilled to hear that Hamilton County invested in two full days of training on one research based method for autism intervention, and from a leader in the field, Dr. Leaf. Though Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a successful approach for some children with autism, it is not the proven approach for all children with this spectrum diagnosis. Since many teachers and administrators don’t have basic knowledge of this intervention method, this training could be the motivation for further inquiry and instruction. Many school systems will be trying to catch up with Hamilton County in gathering information regarding ABA, and I am proud that Hamilton County in collaboration with Siskin Children’s Institute made this a priority for a two-day training practicum.
The intention of this seminar was not to provide a thorough training of ABA practices which would lead to alteration of a child‘s Individualized Education Program (IEP) implementation in the classroom. This was a “get the ball rolling” workshop with more to follow. In our family’s experience, Hamilton County has been cooperative and efficient regarding the specific needs of our son. We’re relatively new to this school system (5 years) and it may be that the times have changed for the better lately, with our son being the recipient, but so be it! Our teachers and therapists wouldn’t and by law couldn’t throw out our son's IEP without our consent, in favor of the systems prescribed by this recent ABA instructional workshop. Our son’s IEP clearly states that his daily program uses picture schedules and assistive technology in addition to many other classroom supports in order to approach his social and communication deficits from all angles. Discreet trial training is a part of our son’s everyday classroom experience; ABA implementation does currently take place daily in our son’s classroom.
In my opinion and experience, ABA is not the end all be all for autism intervention (as one who has spent out of pocket thousands on ABA therapy before utilizing Hamilton County resources), but it should be examined and when appropriate, incorporated into a child’s daily schedule. I am thrilled to be part of a county that looks to current research for best practice methodology and invests in this presentation to educators. I am sure the training wasn’t complete and our teachers and other service providers can begin a dialogue as to which students Dr. Leaf’s ABA approach would best serve, while keeping current IEPs on track with the classroom techniques that are already proving successful. As always, educating children best works in cooperation with parent involvement in order to determine which methods are the most valuable and appropriate for the individual child; the best way for parents and professionals to work together for the benefit of a child with special needs is through the child’s IEP. As parents of a son with autism, we have always been a vital part of our son’s planning meetings and we do not take the responsibility of the wording of his yearly goals lightly. The services our son receives yearly are directly related to the wording of his IEP goals. I am thankful for our son’s teachers, therapists and paraprofessionals. I am so thankful for a school system that has supported the selected goals for our son and provided a safe and conducive learning environment so that he may achieve these goals.
Mom of Son with Autism