teacher, Jennifer Berrong, read “Stone Soup” to his second-grade class at Nicholson Performing Arts
Academy on a recent Monday morning.
After answering a question about the story, 7-year-old Colby
moved to the half-moon table at the back of the room to work on spelling and individual
reading assessments with four other students.
With his dry erase board resting securely on the table in
front of him and a marker in hand, Colby quickly filled in the missing letters
needed to spell the words Berrong fired off. One by one, he earned a perfect
score and was often first to solve the problems. He was also praised for
pronouncing “sandals” and “velvet” correctly during his reading assessment and for
knowing what tulips are.
At first glance, Colby is like any other second-grader. It
isn’t until you really hone in on his
hands that you notice something different. Whether he’s drawing, clapping, tapping
or picking away at things, Colby’s hands are always in motion. It’s like a form
of relaxation – a way to keep his mind focused on the task at hand.
Colby was diagnosed with autism in March. It’s a diagnosis
his mom, Jamilah Dubose, has been trying to secure since he was 2 years old –
when she noticed a few tell-tale signs (including severe tantrums and yelling
out.) “I constantly got calls from the daycare,” said Dubose. “But 10-15 minutes
afterward, he would be fine.”
Colby is not alone. Nearly 600 students who attend IPS
schools have been diagnosed with autism. Children who show signs of autism have
experienced what is described as a delay in brain development characterized by different
degrees of difficulty with social interactions, repetitive behaviors and verbal
and nonverbal communication.
The national numbers tell an important story. According to
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), autism affects more than 3 million individuals in the United States and
tens of millions worldwide. In the United States alone, 1 in 68 children have
Autism Spectrum Disorder (autism), with 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls
In 2009, IPS recognized the need to develop more effective
interventions and programs to impact students with ASD. Approximately 578 IPS
students in grades K–12+ have been identified with an educational eligibility
of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), said Betty Lou Rowe, the district’s life skills
and autism coordinator.
And just like those diagnosed with autism, programs offered
through IPS are not a one-size-fits-all model. “If you know one person with
autism, you know one person with
autism,” said Rowe. “No two people with autism are alike.”
ASD programming at IPS includes:
- Students who remain in the general education
setting, with special education supports.
- Students who receive educational instruction
through the Life Skills self-contained program for students with significant
- Students supported through the Autism (AU)
Program, which can be self-contained with partial inclusion into the general
- Students age 18—21, who are receiving a
Certificate of Completion, to complete their education through one or both of the
district’s off-site transition programs at IUPUI and Community East Hospital.
The transition programs help students transition to collegiate life or
Colby is one of 407 IPS students in preschool through 12th
grade who are educated in the general education setting with special education
supports and related services.
He spends the majority of his day in a regular second-grade
classroom at Nicholson and works one-on-one, twice a week, with a behavioral
specialist from Midtown Community Mental Health Center at school on goal
Mariell T.’s day is different.
Diagnosed with autism in 2011, 7-year-old Mariell spends
time in his first-grade classroom at Elder W. Diggs School 42 but is
pulled out three times a day in 45-minute blocks to work with his special education
teachers on the subjects (math and English) he struggles with, said his mom, Shawanda
Mariell, who is fixated on buses and trains (especially
Thomas the Train) and is known to wander off, has problems mainly with behavior
and his speech. “He jumbles words and says things backward but he’s trying to
get it,” said his mom.
To help Mariell cope with the homework load, his teacher
allows him to learn fewer spelling words a week than his classmates. Instead of
10 words, his mom said his list was originally reduced to five. He’s now up to
seven words a week. “That has helped him tremendously.”
She has also seen improvement in his grades. “In math, he
brought his grade up from a D to a C,” said Shawanda T. “I’m very proud of him;
he’s working hard.”
Both Colby and Mariell’s moms are grateful IPS has services
and programs for students with autism and that their sons can participate in a
traditional school setting.
“I feel they are very supportive at (his) school,” said
Shawanda T. “(Mariell) enjoys being part of the school and the class, and it
gives him a social life. Overall, I think it’s a good thing.”
“I’m comfortable because I know he has a teacher who has his
best interest at heart. She doesn’t just put him out when he’s having an
episode,” said Dubose about Colby’s teacher. “Because of her effort and her
taking on his ‘school mom’ role, it gives me a great feeling.”
Colby’s “episodes” usually occur in the afternoons, said
Berrong. They can include him shutting down, being aggressive with items around
him or moaning loudly. Through trial and error and consistent communication
with Colby’s mom, Berrong knows what it takes to get Colby to calm down.
Coloring or playing with Silly Putty helps. “He loves to
color and draw,” said Berrong. “And the putty works really well. I’ll play with
it first or just put it near him. Sometimes I let him go to his safe spot (an
area in the back of the class).”
Rowe said shutting down in the afternoons is not unusual for
someone with autism, as that time of day can often be overwhelming.
“It’s often a stressful time because it’s more unstructured
with lunch and recess,” said Rowe. “So when they come back (into the
classroom), they need a break to calm back down. They need to kind of restart
after recess. (For someone with autism), it’s easier to shut down than try to
figure out how to solve things.”
Berrong also makes a few allowances with schoolwork for
Colby during the week, including a few extra days to turn in his homework. “He’s
very smart, but when he thinks there’s a little bit of a challenge he shuts
Despite the adjustments, Colby is still responsible for
doing the work. Berrong said she adjusts for other students as well, depending
on individual circumstances and what’s going on at home. “IPS has started to
give us a little more breathing room (in that area); we have a lot more
Colby’s mom appreciates that he’s being held accountable for
his actions and responsibilities, which is a carry over from his life at home. “They
hold him accountable and it’s such a collective effort,” said Dubose. “His
teacher (and the principal) are amazing.”
She’s pleased with Nicholson and its staff, and the growth
that she’s seeing in her son.
Dubose said the arts component at Nicholson has also been a
huge help for Colby. Students at the school can participate in theater, dance,
music and visual art. In addition to his love of coloring and drawing, Colby
was also selected to participate in theater club.
“The arts give him an outlet to release his anxiety and
energy,” said Dubose. “But he knows he can’t color, draw or participate in
theater unless he does his work.”
Often, the degree of the characteristics of a person’s
autism depends on how they function. Because Colby is extremely verbal and
high-functioning, being in a traditional school/classroom with other children and
with “normal” expectations helps him grow.
Rowe said that’s one of the goals of the ASD programming,
which is part of the Special Education Department, at IPS.
Education is not a place, it’s a service,” said Rowe. “We always want to be as
close to that traditional setting as we can be. We want to encourage and
broaden what’s possible, and you can have quality education in those