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For some children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, going to school can be a difficult, anxiety-provoking proposition.
Those with disorders along the autism spectrum often have issues with anxiety, learning social skills and responding to sensory stimulation. They may struggle with understanding social cues and making friends.
Change of routine may be disruptive and arouse anxiety, and may lead to acting out.
For these reasons and others, going to a traditional community school may not be able to give them what they need, even if they have, as is often the case, average to above average intellectual ability.
Pathways Academy, at McLean Hospital, is a specialized year-round school for such students, ages 6 through 22, where they can receive not only a state-certified education, but also the therapeutic and pragmatic help they need to succeed both in school and later in life.
“It’s a small school which has the goal of getting the students, who are generally bright and capable, to have their abilities and capabilities match,” says Peter Loeb, educational director.
“We use lots of strategies designed to decrease their anxiety around the school setting,” he says.
These include a predictable daily schedule and small class sizes. There are a maximum of 32 students at the school and no more than four to a class. Each class has one certified teacher and one counselor. Each student has an individualized education plan.
Students may leave Pathways with a diploma from the school district from where they came if they wish. In addition to learning academic subjects they will need to get a diploma and, in some cases, to gain entrance to college, students are provided with classes in life skills, planning for life’s transitions and social skills.
Pathways students take weekly outings into the local community, to a variety of locations such as the library, museums and restaurants.
“Pragmatics” classes focus on social awareness, initiating and maintaining relationships, respect for self and others, awareness of emotions, time management, appropriate reactions to situations and how to cope with stresses.
There are no grades—classes are graded either pass or fail. There is no homework. There are no tests. All of these things can cause anxiety, which is one of the biggest issues for these children.
Students are given plenty of positive verbal reinforcement for doing the right things, and are not punished or lectured for “misbehaving.” Instead, it is explained to them what the natural consequences of that misbehavior might be.
If a student were to insult another student, for example, “we explain to them that the other student might not want to be with them later,” Loeb says.
Punishments “only increase anxiety and decrease the ability to learn,” he says.
All students take part in a community service recycling program. Some take nonpaying jobs at the school—like washing dishes or bagging snacks—so they can get work experience. Some students are able to find employment outside of the school at places like fast-food restaurants in their home communities.
Some students end up going back to schools in their own communities. Others stay at Pathways through graduation.
The school has been open for 15 years and occupies the first floor of a three-story building on McLean’s campus. It is a day school and students live at home.
Staff includes educators and clinicians with training and experience in several fields including non-verbal learning disability, sensory processing disorder, socialization problems and anxiety disorders. While there is a psychologist and psychiatrist on staff, students typically have their own mental health specialists in their communities.
“Our staff has created a great learning environment for our students,” Loeb says. “They do a great job of supporting each other so they want to stay. The longer they stay, the better they know how the school works and what works for students.”