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Specialized classroom helps students with autism

NIAGARA FALLS – One year after the Niagara Falls City School District began offering a specialized classroom for students with autism spectrum disorders, the district has called the plan a success.

The classroom, located in the Cataract Elementary School, began in the 2014-15 school year.

Because trust and familiarity are a high concern for students with autism spectrum disorders, all aspects of the students’ lives were considered – even before school opened. Parents and the eight students taking advantage of the program were invited to a special open house, which included everyone, even their school bus driver.

On hand were classroom teacher Kate Barto, along with aides Melissa Molly and Maxine Casey, speech pathologist Sarah Ruffolo, Cataract Principal Jeff Showers and Special Education Director Dr. Michael Lewis.

The school district also worked with the Summit Center and staff received 12 hours of professional development. They had a chance to discuss exactly what a classroom should look like and how it should operate.

The result was a highly visual classroom that included spaces to work individually with students as well as an easy-to-follow daily schedule that included pictures that helped students move from speech, to occupational and physical therapy. A high level of parental involvement also is key.

Although students take physical education with the general school population, they arrive and leave on a separate schedule and have lunch in their own classroom.

Consistency is very important for these students’ academic success, according to the district. Students may have communication delays and behavior problems. The program focuses on communication and highly individualized, grade-level instruction.

In addition to making the school more aware of autism spectrum disorder education, the overall benefit of the new classroom has been allowing students the opportunity to be educated close to their homes and within their community, rather than utilizing expensive services from public or private agencies.

Parents who commented to the district on the new classroom said their children were enjoying school, developed a bond with their teacher, were communicating better and improving their vocabulary and spelling, as well as performing tasks such as dressing themselves.

District officials reported that they hope to expand the number of such classrooms in the future.