Helping children with autism prepare for life

Autism Education Center leads state for training school-based teams
— by Dottie Barnes

Paraprofessional Kari Veenstra works one-on-one with 3-year-old Parker. Left to right, Zach and William listen to their teacher’s instruction.

Six-year-old Zachary is excited to give his classmates a really big handshake. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he sings, and then reminds them what his name is. He then says the names of each of his seven classmates as he gives them a hearty handshake.

It’s a regular part of the morning greeting in his preschool class at the Ottawa Area Early Intervention Program, a collaboration between the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, local school districts and Grand Valley to meet the educational needs of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“What we do in the program is very similar to other preschool classes or pre-kindergarten classes,” said lead teacher Linda Elenbaas, who has been a special education teacher for 21 years and with the early intervention program for nine years. “The difference is our instruction is very structured and more intensive. The core of the program is Applied Behavior Analysis, meaning we break down each skill and teach it step-by-step until the entire skill is mastered.”

Grand Valley students are trained to work in the classroom through an autism practicum course. More than 170 students have already completed the class and have successfully moved into teaching positions across the state.


The Ottawa Area Early Intervention Program has been a model program for the state. Grand Valley’s Autism Education Center has developed trainings for other schools, based on this model, through the Statewide Autism and Training Project, or START.

A vital component of teaching children with autism is the use of visual supports. In 2001, Grand Valley was designated by the Michigan Department of Education as the lead university in the development of resources and training to build and coordinate regional teams supporting school personnel and parents of children with autism.

“Grand Valley leads the way in training educators across the state,” said Amy Matthews, associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley and START project director. “We’ve developed a model to do training differently from preschool through high school. We offer on-site, comprehensive year-long training instead of one shot in-services. Teams of experts are brought in to work together for an entire year, including teachers, social workers, psychologists, administrators, paraprofessionals and speech therapists.”

Jamie Owen-DeSchryver, assistant professor of psychology at Grand Valley and START project faculty, said the project continues to be funded (now in its sixth year) because of its effectiveness and success.

“Our goal is to move children with autism into integrated school settings as much as possible,” she said. “Historically, this has not been a common practice and it’s been difficult to figure out. Parents want this for their kids, for them to be part of the community.”

Several Michigan school districts receive START training each year — more than 90 percent of the state’s intermediate school districts have benefited from the project. The training aspect of the START program consists of 13 days of training emphasizing the use of positive behavior support, integration, peers as models, social communication supports and educational strategies. The START project also emphasizes collaboration across counties and districts to share training, resources and effective practice strategies.

“This is more than basic training on autism,” Matthews said. “We strive to have an impact on the entire school system, district or county that we’re working with.”

Visual Supports

A vital component of the training, according to Matthews, is the use of visual supports. Children with autism have significant issues with social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. She said visuals are essential because they help children organize their activities throughout the day.

“If children with autism can see a picture of what is being taught, or what is expected, the instruction will stay with him or her longer,” she said. “A child with Attention Deficit Disorder may need cues to stay on task; a child with autism needs visual organization.”

Teacher Katie Wilkerson encourages Zach as he selects the next activity on his individualized day planner.

Back in Zachary’s classroom, the students sing “This Old Man” as they learn numbers. A doll represents the main character with picture supports in its pockets to illustrate the song. Elenbaas, along with two paraprofessionals and two Grand Valley interns, give individualized attention to the students requiring prompting and positive support for participation in the group activity.

When it’s time to move to another activity, the students walk over to their individualized schedule. Their day planner, noting snack time, circle time, work centers, sensory and lunch time, is a critical learning tool for each student in the classroom.

“These day planners, or visual supports, help keep the children focused and on task,” said Elenbaas. “Each is unique to the child and will go with them when they go to their next placement.”

Soon, it’s time for work centers and 3-year-old Parker works one-on-one with Kari Veenstra, a paraprofessional. Like some children with autism, Parker is primarily nonverbal. His lack of language, however, is not a limiting factor. “Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a huge range of abilities,” said Elenbaas. “Some require special education support most of the day, and some are in a full-time regular education classroom with teacher consultation.”

Parker uses some sign language and is able to utilize alternative language devices along with picture representation. Elenbaas said children who come to the program without verbal language typically acquire words or have a functional communication system before leaving the program.

As with all kids, taking a break for physical activity helps overall learning. This is especially significant for children with autism, so it’s off to spend about 20 minutes in the sensory room for Zachary, Parker and their classmates. The colorful room contains swings, tunnels, bouncing balls, and a squeeze machine.

“The children utilize the equipment to regulate their systems,” Elenbaas said. “It’s different for each child. Some like to spin, others like the pressure of the squeeze machine. Regulating their systems helps them go back to the classroom and focus on activities.”

Integration with Typical Peers

In the classroom next door, Katie Wilkerson, a former intern of the Grand Valley Autism Practicum and 2003 Grand Valley graduate, teaches another group of children with autism. Wilkerson’s classroom is the next step in the program with students having accomplished individualized goals in Elenbaas’ room.

“All of the instruction is bumped up with goals and objectives targeted specifically to each child’s needs,” said Wilkerson. “For example, we move from sounds to word families. Another example is we do show and tell, which works on conversational skills and peer relationships. In Linda’s classroom they are greeting one another and working on functional language.”

There is another significant difference as well. This preschool classroom also includes children who do not have autism. These children help the others with social and language skills. Wilkerson contends these children do just as much teaching as the teachers.

“These children are so caring and empathetic,” she said. “This peer-to-peer support, or reverse inclusion, gives the children with autism more independence.”

Reverse inclusion is based on best practices, which supports movement toward inclusion with non disabled peers. The Clarkston School District in Oakland County is a model of this practice. Owen-DeSchryver said 10 peers are partnered with children with autism for the entire school day — in class, at lunch and during recess. The program has shown that peer models are effective at helping students with autism learn social skills and other skills. 


Educators agree communication and a good team process are what it takes to help children with autism advance to the next level. That team includes parents. Elenbaas suggests parents visit and volunteer in the classroom. Parents often need guidance and both Elenbaas and Wilkerson make home visits and have even attended social functions with families to offer strategies and support.

There is debate over the cause of autism, but Matthews said no one is disputing the facts about the successes of early intervention.

Steve and Carol Sorenson’s 4-year-old son, Samuel, was a part of the Ottawa Area Early Intervention Program until age 3. He was diagnosed at 20 months. “He was such an easy baby,” Carol remembered. “But, he never babbled or talked and he was fascinated with lights.”

Paraprofessional Kari Veenstra, left, and Grand Valley intern Gina James walk students to class. At right, lead teacher Linda Elenbaas works with Zachary on letters and sounds.

Carol was persistent with doctors for a diagnosis. She ignored advice to wait and scheduled health, vision and fine motor evaluations, as well as physical therapy and occupational therapy.

Samuel was enrolled in the preschool program where Steve says he made great progress. “Samuel would not be as far along as he is without early intervention,” Steve said. “He’s building new skills. He needs to be taught in a different way, but he’s still learning.” Samuel now attends Pine Creek School in Holland where he’s in a more general setting than an autistic setting. Carol said he has eight-to-10 word sentences.

• A child is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) every 20 minutes
• 1 in 150 children will be diagnosed with ASD
• ASD is the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S.
• ASD is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year (U.S. Dept. of Education)
• Boys are diagnosed more often than girls, by a 4-to-1 ratio
Sources: Centers for Disease Control, Autism Society of America
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Page last modified March 17, 2014