Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Final Course Reflection

As a school counselor, the direct application of the information I have acquired in Larry Welkowitz’s class, Introduction to Counseling Interventions of Students on the Autistic Spectrum offered at Antioch University New England, is quite easy to see. My work places me in the position of directly working with ASD kids, and I have been, skeptical about whether or not I am skilled/schooled enough to be effective. Traditional counseling techniques often rely on the individual’s ability to acquire insight to facilitate change, and while I do not deny that some Asperger’s kids demonstrate some insight, it can certainly be a challenge to get them to “shift” their line of thinking when perspective taking is so hard.

Dr. Welkowitz addressed the idea that socially successful kids ask questions. Teaching them what these questions are and when to use them is not always so simple. As counselors, we are taught to be tender, so the direct, results oriented cognitive/behavioral approach that seems the most successful with ASD kids may look somewhat harsh or insensitive. In her book Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence, Teresa Bolick (2004) emphasizes how important it is to form a sincere partnership with the students we serve, as discouragement is a real threat to success. She speaks about the necessity to fashion tasks that are both meaningful and motivating to assure that adolescents understand what the reason and pay off of hard work is likely to be. As Dr. Welkowitz has pointed out, what we “think” propels what we “do,” so teaching the tiers of social questioning, identifying the key social people in a child’s environment, and helping them access an understanding of the importance of social nuances is not only necessary, it is crucial.


This course has whet my appetite for further exploring and understanding what kinds of interventions can be used successfully at the middle school level in developing what I am referring to as a “social safety net.” Adreon & Stella (2001) point out that social expectations increase and peer relationships get more complex as children get older. While many students look forward to the experience of middle school, ASD kids are often overwhelmed by things like having a variety of teachers, moving in the hallways, operating a locker, etc… Unstructured times such as the playground and cafeteria may be especially problematic. Increasing adult supports may alleviate some situations, but peer supports may have the greatest overarching effect. We should not underestimate the importance of learning how to both have and be a friend. The skills we pick up as children are carried into the workplace; intimacy, a sense of belonging and value is a basic human need.

Janney & Snell (2006) point out that adults in schools both set the tone and hold the keys to creating an environment that is both physically and emotionally safe for ASD kids. Modeling, role-playing and facilitating respectful, accepting behaviors teaches neuro-typical kids that being different is not only okay, it can be a reason to celebrate. Exposing and applauding all kids’ talents should be the goal of every classroom teacher. Direct and indirect involvement with exceptional students through instruction and the expression of both affection and healthy attitudes can change the lives of all of our students. Stay tuned next semester as I delve deeper into an attempt to develop such a social safety net among the students I serve.

The town of Bedford is building its first ever high school, set to open this fall. As part of the project, our middle school will also be moving to a new facility on the same campus. The prospect of being able to establish social relationships and/or programs at the middle school level that will, hopefully, expand to grades 7 through 12 has me very excited. Nancy Mizelle (2003) has offered some useful suggestions for how to transition kids from middle school to high school, stressing the importance of pre-planning and collaboration between the school staffs. I would venture that the same level of importance will need to be considered between grades 6 and 7, as well. Orientations, school tours, parent information nights, etc…can make or break a child’s experience by coloring their perceptions about the future. I have already begun discussion with my counseling colleagues, both above and below me, about the kinds of things we should be considering as we go forward.

The prospects are limitless; the future is filled with opening doors of opportunity. I want to thank Dr. Welkowitz for sharing his enthusiasm and expertise. I found this class to be both riveting and practical; I know I will use many of his ideas and practices in my own work and to me, that feels as though this was time well spent.

References:

Adreon, D., & Stella, J. (2001). Transition to middle and high school: Increasing the success of students with Asperger Syndrome. Intervention in School & Clinic, 36(5), 266-272.

Bolick, T. (2004). Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence. Gloucester, MA: Fair Winds Press.

Janney, R. & Snell, M. (2006). Social Relationships and Peer Support. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Mizelle, N. (2003). Helping middle school students make the transition into high school. Taken from www.mentalhelpnet: child and adolescent development.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Kathleen Seidel

Kathleen Seidel of neurodiversity.com spoke to our class last weekend. She is the mother of a son who has been diagnosed with Asperger's and has taken on the subject with passion and conviction. I was moved by the candidness with which she spoke about her son, her father and other extended family members, the traits they share and the travesties endured as the cost of misunderstandings. I was also very interested in her views regarding medical "findings" and the lack of scientific method in many research studies. Diagnosis is such an emotionally charged event, and sometimes parents will grasp any new information offerered as "truth" instead of possibility. While one can hardly question why this could occur, professionals would be nothing less than kind, if not ethical, not to foster false hope. Ms. Seidel offers a wealth of information on her website. It's worth spending some time exploring.
Discussion regarding Asperger's and co-morbidity that took place in my Intro to Counseling class at Antioch University New England (Applied Psychology:Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate Program) this past weekend reinforced the idea that service providers need to be careful not to attribute the features of a secondary disorder to the general characteristics of an ASD itself. Anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive behaviors, etc...need to be addressed and respected in their own right. It is difficult to find mental health providers who know enough or are willing to treat individuals on the autistic spectrum. I would appreciate any information available on practitioners in the Manchester, NH area who have had success working with ASD adolescents.
I continue in the quest of establishing a middle school level peer support program. Please check out this blog site after January 1, 2007 for summary statements on my research to this point.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Middle School Mayhem

Hello again. I am beginning to think a lot about the pitfalls of adolescence and how they complicate things for students with Asperger's and vice versa, how Asperger's complicates adolescence. Recently I have had the pleasure of knowing a group of 7th grade students who have taken it on themselves to create a safety net around on of our multiply handicapped students. It's gotten me to thinking...what about a social safety net around our AS kids? I know it's done at the college level (see L Welkowitz), but what's been done younger? Nancy Mizelle at Mentalhelp.net has some interesting ideas about transitioning kids to high school and the successful things that can take place in middle school to assure positive outcomes. The Modelmekids Program offers teaching tools for social skills development throughout middle school and high school, as well. Kelly May at New Horizons has written an informative article about teaching strategies and AS kids, but none of these has offered me exactly what I'm looking for: a way to recruit, train, supervise and support neurotypical peers in an attempt to immerse AS students in their real social surroundings. I'll keep looking and would appreciate anybody else's thoughts.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Blogging 101...

Hello. My name is Susan (M) and I am a graduate student in the Autistic Spectrum Disorders Certificate Program at Antioch New England. I work as a school counselor at a large middle school in southern NH and have become fascinated by kids on the spectrum as a result of a few different but converging things. First, I have had the exciting pleasure of working with a couple of boys during the past two years that have taught me more than a million hours of book learning ever could. They are bright, quirky, somewhat marginalized kids who pique my curiosity and make me laugh, all in the same breath! Next, we have been fortunate to hire two very talented people who know a lot about social pragmatics and autism. My collaboration with them, one a speech path and the other a spec ed teacher, has resulted in my being absolutely convinced that we can and should do more for our AS kids. My goal in participating in this program is to be able to be more effective in teacher education, parent collaboration, and in improving my clinical skills so that I can be useful to our students not just "in the moment," but long term, as well.

This past weekend, in our Intro to Counseling class, we discussed the idea of students mentoring other students in acquiring social skills AND practicing these skills in natural social settings. I am REALLY excited about this concept and wondering about whether or not I can use this at the middle school level to alleviate some of the trouble spots like the cafeteria and playground. As a Special Olympics coordinator, I have seen the powerful effect of mingling spectrum kids with neurotypical peers. What I need to consider is how to present this option to the NT peers, how to get spectrum kids to buy in; I will need to try to anticipate problematic situations that may arise; i.e., what to do when the NT kids get teased, how to avoid "burn out" of the mentor kids, what kind of social opportunities can be successfully left up to the kids to navigate independently, how to approach families, what the importance of AS kids actually knowing their diagnoses might be, and so forth. In all cases, it is a very exciting idea.

The parameters of conversation, the discussion about the soft neurological signs associated with AS, the concept of behavior "chaining" and breaking the chain at the earliest opportunity and weakest link have all presented as ideas that can effectively and affectively alter the course of the day for an AS child. I think the most obvious impact of Sunday's discusssion for me centers around sensitizing me to the actual experience of being an AS kid. As a counselor, it is important to me to be able to be in the same space as the child. Not easy when considering an altered neurological state. Unconditional acceptance tempered by the need for explicit instruction can be a departure from the norm or one's own comfort zone when undertaking counseling in which insight is a gift, not an expectation. I have a lot to think about and a lot to learn.