First Steps: One School District Begins to Serve Its Gifted Students with Asperger Syndrome
Introduction: Recently I picked up NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman, one in a long list of books I’ve been meaning to read. It reminded me of work I did when I was an administrator in Evergreen Public Schools of Vancouver Washington. The district had around 27,000 students then, and we had programs for both gifted children (Excel) and those on the autism spectrum (SCIP). At the time I had a friend, “Jane,” who had a brilliant little boy with Asperger Syndrome. I watched her struggle to find help for her son, to find a way to “make it go away” in his early years before he started school. Would he one day be in a program for gifted children – or in a program for children on the Autism spectrum? Like other districts, we had served a few Asperger students within our Excel program. Some had not been diagnosed. A few had been diagnosed, but the school system didn’t know of it prior to Excel placement. One had been diagnosed and intentionally placed in Excel instead of SCIP. We certainly hadn’t looked for them.
I decided to look for children like Jane’s little boy. What I, as Excel administrator, hoped for was a way to serve dual-exceptional children so they could access both programs. It did not prove to be either a linear or easy process. And I am not sure we were anywhere near figuring this out. NeuroTribes prompted me to look at my notes from that time to see what we did, and what we considered adding, thinking we might have a blueprint for other districts to follow.
Step one: Look in other departments. Initially I called our special education department and asked to see the files of all the students in the district who were in the Social and Communication Integration Program (SCIP). I looked for scores in achievement and ability that would support evaluation for the gifted program. I did find a few of these twice exceptional (2E) students. Before I could continue, though, I knew I needed teachers willing to try this with me, willing to get training, and to give honest feedback. We had two programs for elementary gifted children in Evergreen: a Full Time-Self Contained magnet program at two of our twenty-one elementary schools and a one day per week Pull-Out program housed at a centrally located school. Unfortunately, when we began, none of these three schools housed SCIP. SCIP was housed in a few other schools. It seemed like the best way to initiate this was to look to our Pull-Out program. This program would allow the twice-exceptional students to access SCIP the other four days each week for their social integration needs. I approached my Pull- Out staff, and they agreed to work with me on this, requesting that we look into training that might be available.
Step two: Professional development: The district special education department had people in it who were experienced enough to offer training on early release days used for professional development. They also recommended books for our staff that I purchased.
Step three: Find and solve the problems. Problems arrived with the children! The first problem was logistical in nature. The Pull-Out program, because of the cost of busing, started at 7:45 a.m. each day, while the host school didn’t begin until 9:25 a.m. What this meant was that there was a period of time when there was no back-up in the school available – no principal, no secretary, no nurse or social worker – in short, no other adults! The teachers quickly developed a system between them to cover each other. But making it worse, on one day per week, one of the teachers was there alone; the other teachers worked part time and had one or more days per week off. For the Asperger children who escalated in an inward way, this didn’t pose much of a problem. But for others, who escalated more violently (flailing, running away, etc.), – it was a major issue. It was a safety issue for other students as well as for the 2E student. Temporary solutions included grouping the 2Es together when possible and requesting a special education aide, if only for part of the morning, to come to class. As we moved to the next school year, we set up class schedules so there would always be at least two classes going each day of the week. This worked better.
Another problem had more to do with the essence of an enrichment program for gifted children. While our Pull-Out program worked intentionally to support and enrich the curriculum of the regular classroom, it was problem-based and intense. The program was designed to give students intellectual peers with whom they could interact, as well as offering rich, complex, integrated units of study. Group interaction for some of the 2E students (and including some of those with ADHD) conflicted with the needs of the disability. Again, teacher training was helpful with strategies and structures that provided balance for the program and routine and support for the students.
As we worked on this, word spread in the district that we were serving 2E children, and more were referred for evaluation, more were found that qualified for our programs.
Step four: Look for flexibility and be ready to change. One of our Full-Time schools had the SCIP program added to it – and just in time! One student placed in our Full-Time program needed this support. The teacher spent the summer prior to his placement reading and getting training to be able to confidently welcome this student. The next year we added another similar student to our Full-Time program.
As children moved into our middle schools, they faced both opportunity and adjustment. While we had Excel in all middle schools, only some had SCIP. Children with Asperger Syndrome were automatically placed in middle schools with SCIP. Working with middle school counselors, we placed all of our gifted Asperger students in a middle school Excel Block of integrated language arts and social studies. All middle school Excel students had leveled math classes, determined by achievement. For math-ready students, there was also an accelerated science program. This gave gifted students something of a menu to choose from. For students who were not excelling in language skills, they took language arts and social studies in general education classes and also took the accelerated math and science path, for example. This applied for all our gifted students, but we found it was especially helpful with the 2E population. Because of the intensity of the accelerated classes, we found that some of the 2E students did fine with all acceleration, while others did better with acceleration only in areas of high strength and interest. Sometimes a student chose one path and found it didn’t work well because of the level of rigor or the level of anxiety for the student. We then went through conferencing, interventions, etc. to get to a comfortable fit, sometimes changing the path – the courses – the student was in. In most cases this was done at natural transition times – at the end of a school year, or at a semester or winter vacation break.
Other ideas and solutions were also under consideration. One was the use of a kit or kits that would be given to the SCIP program for integrated use at the student’s school. This could offer depth and complexity to the curricula for the 2E student within the SCIP program.
- Communicate between districts. Because this population is quite small, pooling ideas and resources becomes all the more important. I don’t think Evergreen was alone in trying to reach out to these kids – it just felt that way. For all of us, we need to get it into the conversation. We have regional educational service districts in our state that serve all districts in a region. Offering something for 2E students where resources might be pooled would be particularly beneficial to smaller school districts.
- Find other twice exceptional children. At one point I reached out to our English Language Learner program and worked with some of their staff to help them identify children that might be evaluated for gifted programs.
- Start a group for parents. In Evergreen, we were serving less than a dozen gifted Asperger children, spread out through grades 2 – 8, in 27 elementary and middle schools. One had a mother who was a teacher. As I talked with her one day on the phone, I asked her if a support group for the parents might be helpful. She responded, “You know, I have taught hundreds of children for twenty years. And I’ve never met another child like my son.” She had an ocean of problems, with not a comrade in sight. Yes, she said, she would be very interested in a support group for parents. We found a next step.
Conclusion: It should be noted that even in districts doing universal screening for giftedness, there needs to be a focused and publicized effort toward serving duel exceptionalities. Further, there is no substitute for good teachers who are willing to step out, learn, and try. Such teachers are worthy of respect and need administrators who will listen to them and have them help take the lead in finding solutions. The willingness of the people working in Evergreen’s program for gifted students to work with other departments and to find solutions in the host schools earned a measure of respect throughout the district. And this is always a good thing for those advocating for the education of gifted children.