A Guiding Light

New Program at Holy Rosary Catholic School gives parents hope for children with autism

photographs by Linda O. Schlesinger

(page 1 of 3)

In the middle of Holy Rosary Catholic School’s playroom, Will Greer is perched on top of a tower of mats, preparing to plop. “He loves jumping on them, falling off of them, and watching others fall,” says Jessica Carnell, my guide and one of Will’s therapists. It fits in with his love of clowns, she explains, encouraging Will to show me his clown imitation. No such luck.

But 7-year-old Will, who is autistic, is unfazed by our invasion of his play space and instantly warms to Carnell. Together, they begin a series of games. Carnell places four yellow sticky notes on the floor, each with 25 cents, 10 cents, 5 cents, and 1 cent written on it. Carnell then gives Will four coins and asks him to place each coin on the correct sticky note.

After getting it right, Carnell rewards Will by pushing him on the vestibular swing, an occupational therapy aid designed to help children with sensory integration issues assimilate their senses to their environment. Will is delighted.

Children in the Angel Program gets lots of one-on-one time with therapists.

Early Intervention is Key

Will is one of 17 autistic children enrolled in the ANGEL program at Holy Rosary Catholic School. ANGEL stands for Autism Intervention and Guidance for Early Learners. The program is designed to offer preschoolers with autism year-round, intensive instruction using innovative teaching techniques. The program is based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Each child has a personalized curriculum that fits his or her needs and evolves as he does. The goal of this early intervention is to have each child mainstreamed by kindergarten.

One innovative technique ANGEL uses is the Discrete Trial Training (DTT) methodology, which helps autistic children develop cognitive, communication, play, social, vocational, and self-help skills. Since autism is a developmental disability that affects social and communication skills, “DTT programs often start by training pre-learning skills (sitting, attending a task), social skills (looking at people, talking and interacting with them), safety skills (ability to state name, address, and phone number) and basic concepts (colors, letters, numbers),” states the program website. Then, higher- level skills can be introduced.

Four years ago, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis department of education, under the direction of retired superintendent Dr. Mary McDonald, approached Holy Rosary about housing this special program.

There are a few private schools in Memphis serving students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and other moderate disabilities. And the public schools have pull-out programs for children with special needs. But until Holy Rosary took the cue from the Diocese, no local school was catering specifically to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). And there is an obvious and growing need.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health website, “In a 2009 government survey on ASD prevalence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the rate of ASD was higher than in past U.S. studies. Based on health and school records of 8-year-olds in 14 communities throughout the country, the CDC survey found that around 1 in 110 children has ASD. Boys face about four to five times higher risk than girls.”

Autism usually surfaces in children by age 3 and lasts throughout a person’s life, but outcomes for individuals with the disorder vary greatly. “Research has shown early intensive intervention to be key to dramatic positive changes,” according to the ANGEL program website (theangelprogram.com).

Holy Rosary agreed to undertake the project as long as it would have a separate budget and be self-sufficient, which has been the case since it started in 2010. “[Holy Rosary] took the idea, developed it and created a beautiful program,” says Diocese Interim Superintendent Janet Donato. “It’s a loving, caring, nurturing environment,”

The first and most strategic step principal Darren Mullis took was to hire Jessica Carnell, ANGEL’s program director, lead therapist, and a true personal angel for these children.

Carnell led me on a two-hour experiential journey into the classrooms where ANGEL students spend seven hours a day learning language, behavioral, social, and basic life skills. The children in the Angel core classes are integrated with non-autistic children for part of the day in special activities such as gym, music, art, computers, library, and lunch. Others are mainstreamed in regular classrooms for the full day with an ANGEL staff member as a shadow.

These children are part of ANGEL’s Halo program, created to accomodate students who aren’t quite ready to be fully mainstreamed by kindergarten. Regular teachers are completely in charge of the classroom but the shadow is there to prevent Halo students from getting over-stimulated. “[The shadow] reminds them of the steps or cues to get refocused,” Carnell explains. Currently, there are five Halo students, one in kindergarten; two in first grade and two in second grade; two shadows monitor them.

Carnell, who is currently completing her master’s in special education, is also a board-certified behavior analyst. “She has a natural desire and passion to help children achieve all they can; she believes in them and that they can be part of a regular classroom,” says Mullis.

Program Director Jessica Carnell plays "What's Missing" with Halo Students in preparation for kindergarden.


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