photographs by Linda O. Schlesinger
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.
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.
Carnell was the first professional to tell Genni and Chris McKey-Greer, that their son, Luke, has much potential. “She gave us something we had not had, and that was hope,” says Genni. “That woman has changed his world.” Families credit Carnell and her staff for making them better parents and bringing their families closer together.
“We’ve never seen anybody more dedicated who truly loves the kids and the cause,” say Mathew and Elizabeth Domas, whose son, Nolan, started in the ANGEL core program in 2010. He is now a first-grade Halo student. Carnell knows how to build trust with the children.
“[Nolan] adores Jessica. But she makes him work and doesn’t give him any slack,” says Elizabeth. “They’re so gentle and kind yet they expect so much, so our kids get so much,” she says.
The faculty at Holy Rosary assess each child, noting they must be fairly high functioning to enter the program. Says Mullins, “We want to provide a realistic opportunity for families and children. We don’t want to put them in a position where they won’t be successful.” Each child progresses at his own pace; some remain in the core program for more than a year, as long as the staff can help them advance.
The program began with nine students and a staff of three, but in three years has grown to 17 students and seven professionals. Four students have graduated the program and now attend regular kindergarten and first-grade classes at Holy Rosary.
The school has also become a one-stop shop for many ANGEL parents, who like having all of their children attending the same school. Currently, six families who have a child in the ANGEL program also have siblings enrolled here.
Helping Kids Grow
In 2010, Tamrra and Chris Dindl moved their son, Ryan, from a special education preschool program in a public school, where he was regressing, to the ANGEL program where he receives individualized attention. Daily communication with teachers helps the couple “use what he’s learning in school at home and we can make needed changes in a timely manner,” they say via email. The Dindls have been impressed with the significant improvement in Ryan’s verbal communications. “It used to be a guessing game when he was upset,” says Tamrra. “He went from no communication to physically guiding us, then single word requests and answers to now using full sentences.”
“I think it is a blessing to have this program here in Memphis,” says Alvis Otero. “It should be a pilot for many schools in the city of Memphis and the state of Tennessee for that matter.” Otero’s son, Leander Castro, is fully mainstreamed in kindergarten now, after a year and a half as a Halo student.
Leander, who also has ADHD, would act out his extreme frustration by hitting his head or pushing his peers, says his father. “Now he has the tools to express his thoughts in a clear and concise manner [appropriate] to his age. He also is more understanding of challenges other children face and demonstrates compassion towards others,” says Otero. “At home he is happy, cooperative, and does his homework on time without struggles or extreme supervision.”
“The program provides the early intervention children need to be successful in life. The staff are unique, qualified professionals, and extremely loving towards the children, which allows them to grow and focus on the things they can do versus the challenges they face,” he adds.
ANGEL Program at Holy Rosary Catholic School Serves ages 3-7
Mission: To help children with autism become more independent and eventually mainstream into regular classrooms.
For admission details, contact Assistant Principal Anne Gardino, 685-1231
Tuition: $975 per month Funding: Grant from the Buckman Foundation and private donations via ANGEL Wings. The program is seeking more corporate and private funding to expand its services. To learn more, contact Marty Petrusek, email@example.com.
Recognizing Traits that Define Autism
In her award-winning best seller, author Ellen Notbohm, explains in layman’s terms the way autistic children are wired. Notbohm, the mother of an autistic son now attending college, has written extensively on the topic of autism but she also understands what it means to live with it day-to-day.
Her book functions as a compassionate guide, giving insight into how to develop the strengths of your child as well as how to better manage the challenges. In this revised edition, more emphasis is placed “on understanding communication, social processing skills, and the critical roles adult perspectives play” in guiding the autistic child into adulthood. To read more about Notbohm’s views on autism, visit our blog at memphisparent.com. — Jane Schneider