Autism rises in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2010

Editor's note: This is the final part of a three-part series exploring autism in the community.

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Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Gilman helps as Updike completes an assignment during a period of one-on-one education.

In Tina Gilman's classroom at Soldotna Elementary, fingerprinted masterpieces of Easter eggs and flowers hang on the wall. There's a lofted reading nook, student cubbies and an instructional dry erase board.

Unlike most classrooms at the elementary school, there's no groups or rows of little desks, but rather isolated work areas in a designated space in the room.

Her class is set up to facilitate the special needs of her students, including Garrett Updike, a 7-year-old autistic boy.

In the past 10 years, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has experienced a 240 percent increase in students with autism, according to Clayton Holland, the district's pupil services director.

Currently, 69 students in the district have been identified as autistic.

In order to meet the needs of this increasing population of students, Holland said, the district created an autism-specific classroom at Kenai's Mountain View Elementary and has been using new kinds of teaching methods.

This includes the arrangement of structured areas in Gilman's classroom for work and play, reading and arithmetic.

"I think the biggest thing is to learn how to structure things and structure the environment so they can be successful," Gilman said.

When Garrett gets to school he works off of his picture schedule at his private workstation. His agenda has graphics for work, art, snack, recess, and lunch Velcroed to a laminated card.

This methodology is part of the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related-Communication Handicapped, or TEACCH, program from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. The district uses this TEAACH approach in instructing its students with autism.

According to the program's Web site, TEACCH is based on creating individual plans for students with emphasis on structure of the physical environment and visual cues to make daily tasks predictable and understandable.

"One of Garrett's preferred activities is to repeat movies and movie lines so we scheduled that into the day," Gilman said. "He's still getting what he really wants in a structured kind of way."

Holland said that Peninsula educators participate in a monthly "autism cadre" training so they can have a more advanced knowledge of autism methodologies as well as collaborating with agencies like the Infant Learning Program and Head Start to help identify individual student's needs.

"A common saying is if you've seen one student with autism, you've seen one student with autism," he said. "Each student is different."

In order to receive federal funding, school districts nationwide are mandated to create individualized education plans, or IEPs, for special needs students as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"Really what that is, is a written down agreement between the parent and the school about what education will take place for that child," Holland explained. IEPs include a student's current needs, a baseline and specialized goals.

Garrett's plan includes speech and educational therapy at school, private therapy and home-schooling. At Soldotna Elementary he goes to Library and P.E. with a first-grade class and has a scheduled playtime with another student to develop his social skills.

"Garrett's plan is not going to look the same as every autistic child's," said his mother, Tonja Updike.

In his classroom, it's apparent Garrett is strong at reading and number recognition, but only when he wants to be. Sometimes he has trouble focusing and completing a task if it's not what he feels like doing.

Updike said that Garrett, like some other autistics, has difficulties generalizing skills to different environments. A skill he learns one place may not click with him to be appropriate to use in other situations.

That's one reason his IEP includes repetition of activities in various places. At home he will practice similar activities to those at school in order to help him generalize skills.

"That millionth time it might click with him," Updike said. "Saying 'please' is something he generalized."

The types of therapies and services the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offers vary with each student's needs. But the specialized services are available to help students like Garrettwith special challenges.

"The larger issue is helping these students out and the moral and ethical obligation we have to do that," Holland said. "We're trying to do what we can to help them become healthy members of our community."

Updike said she has been pleased with the support and services the school district has offered Garrett.

Last year, Garrett attended the autism-specific class at Mountain View Elementary but it was not the right fit for him so he went back to Soldotna Elementary, where he had previously attended the special needs pre-school program.

"Finding a right fit is not always easy," she said. "I think overall our district is trying very hard to make sure every child gets what they need."

Back in the classroom, Gilman oversees Garrett's progress and keeps him on track with his picture schedule.

"First work then art," she says. "We're going to make frogs today."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at

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