Pathways Academy: Meeting the Needs of Students With Autism

January 31, 2024

Every child deserves and must have the opportunity to learn and reach their full potential…”

Started in 2000, McLean Hospital’s Pathways Academy is a year-round, 216-day school designed to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of students, aged 6 to 22, with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some youths may also struggle with co-occurring mental health diagnoses, such as anxiety.

Many Pathways students have experienced significant challenges accessing typical educational environments.

There are two educators for every four students at Pathways, and each classroom has a maximum of four students. Pathways Academy has a robust clinical team that includes a psychologist, social workers, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, and a nurse.

Pathways Academy

Pathways Academy

McLean’s fully accredited school is aimed at helping students with autism spectrum disorders. Learn more about how we can help your child succeed, academically and personally.

Pathways Academy

A Flexible and Unique Approach

To meet their students’ needs, Pathways staff adhere to a philosophy that includes approaches that aren’t typical in other school settings. Pathways focuses on flexibility—designing educational programming that supports each child’s needs rather than forcing students to conform to a rigid, predetermined structure.

That focus on the students’ needs includes a commitment to avoiding formal punishment, which allows each student to begin the day with a “clean slate.” Meanwhile, punishment in other educational settings often involves taking away things that support and teach social skills, such as recess or field trips.

“Special education has long relied on an approach to managing student behavior called applied behavior analysis,” said Laura Mead, MSEd, MBA, Pathways Academy’s co-director.

“It looks different in different settings, but it is generally based on looking at behaviors you want to increase and those you want to decrease, with the kids either earning points or having them taken away,” Mead said. “However, for so many kids on the spectrum who struggle with rigid thinking, sensory challenges, and high levels of anxiety, it can be a recipe for meltdown.”

Karen Steves, MS, MBA, Pathways Academy co-director, added that all staff have been trained in crisis de-escalation, which also helps to minimize emotional outbursts. She said that “restraints are rare” and that physical intervention only occurs when a student “is in danger of hurting themselves or others.”

“We often talk about natural consequences,” explained Steves, who has been at Pathways for more than 20 years.

“We help to demonstrate what the repercussions for actions may be outside of Pathways. For example, if a student is yelling and unable to follow staff directions, we would ask their peers to disengage and move away,” Steves said. “This is similar to what we would presume people would do if they were out in public, yelling and not adhering to social expectations.”

Another important pillar of the Pathways approach is to consistently provide the students with various types of support throughout the day. This includes scheduled and impromptu sensory activities, embedded social coaching, and ongoing social-emotional support.

The child-centered, skill-building approach used by Pathways Academy supports students as they work toward their individual goals.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders

woman and child listen to music on headphones

Diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder are as common as one in 54 kids. It’s time we understand the world through their eyes.

woman and child listen to music on headphones

Helping Students Thrive

Student outcomes vary based on the goals each individual is pursuing. For instance, one Pathways graduate recently graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from a local public university, while another student left Pathways to return to his local public high school to take classes and play on the football team.

“The overarching goal in special education is to educate the student in the least restrictive school setting,” said Mead.

“We always want to help students return to their school districts if we can. However, for many of our students, Pathways is where they feel most comfortable learning. They recognize that they finally have a place they feel comfortable coming to each day. For many, this will be where they want to stay and graduate.”

Pathways Academy’s low-stress environment and individualized classroom setting have helped to make Pathways a place where students who may have previously experienced academic failure, or who may have been unable to attend due to stress and anxiety, thrive.

As students develop self-confidence in their social, emotional, and academic abilities, their pride and resilience shine through.

To talk to school staff about Pathways Academy, call us today at 617.855.3626.

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