Beth’s IEP conference was held at a Los Angeles Unified School District’s elementary school located in west Los Angeles. In attendance was this writer, who, at that time, served as the Disabilities Services Coordinator for Beth’s Head Start program. In charge of the conference was the school district IEP administrator from LAUSD’s Infant and Preschool Support Program. Also in attendance was the speech and language pathologist who assessed Beth for speech and language deficits, the school psychologist who determined that Beth’s diagnosis was autism, the school nurse and the placement special education teacher. On the other side of the table were Beth’s parents.
It was determined early in the conference that Beth met eligibility for special education services. The IEP administrator made a recommendation for a four hour, Special Day Program, the most restrictive environment, for Beth at the nearest special education school to the family’s home. However, the parents had fallen in love with the Head Start staff and the Head Start program. They wanted Beth to remain in Head Start. But what was best for Beth? She could benefit from the specialized services under a credentialed teacher, supported with speech and language services. Already Beth had made developmental gains in Head Start. She was now using one-word sentences to make her needs known, and she had developed some social skills. Based on the Coordinator’s reports on Beth’s developmental gains, the team agreed that Beth could benefit from both programs, since she did not require napping during the day. The IEP team agreed that Beth would attend the school district’s Special Day Program in the mornings; and to further increase her socializing skills, she would attend Head Start in the afternoons.
Beth’s type of program is called dual placement. Such a placement does not work for all children with disabilities. In fact, Beth was not a child with low-functioning autism. She showed average cognition with the testing. In addition, the speech pathologist suggested that Beth’s language delay may also be the result of language delays in some children whose parents speak more than one language to them. Beth’s day time babysitter had been her maternal grandmother who spoke only Spanish to her. Her parents spoke English to her and to each other.
When full inclusion is not possible, dual placement is best for children like Beth. Recent research has supported the use of play and social skill groups that include children with autism and typically developing peers to improve interaction in play skills, according to Jennifer Ganz, PhD. and Margaret Flores, PhD. in an article for Young Exceptional Children.
Luck also plays a large part in some cases. Beth was lucky to have a Head Start Teacher who was dedicated enough to use her planning time to observe Beth at her morning school with the credentialed teacher. Beth’s Head Start Teacher was able to use what she had learned to continue Beth’s program in the afternoon.
Beth was assigned a play peer, a very smart five-year-old girl who had been in Head Start for two years. By imitating her play peer’s behavior, Beth acquire several skills, particularly self-help skills. The first time Beth raised her hand to go to the bathroom alone, the Teacher called the Coordinator and weeped with joy. “Our baby went to the bathroom by herself,” she cried.
During Beth’s second year in Head Start, she knew all of her classmates by name. She engaged in cooperative play, and one day, she told the Coordinator that she was wearing the color lavender. Her mother said that lavender and orchid were her favorite colors.
Beth’s father became a strong advocate for his daughter. He fought to have her transitioned to a full-inclusion kindergarten class. The Coordinator was able to track Beth’s progress up until the second grade. The family moved out of the area and the Head Start staff lost contact with them. This true story occurred around 1994. Beth would be about 18-years-old. This writer hopes that she is still doing well.
Note: Part III of Beth Story: The reader will learn more about using play peers to help children with autism.