Pathways Academy: Meeting the Needs of Students With Autism

February 11, 2019

“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 school designed and dedicated to meeting the psychological, social, and academic needs of students aged 6 to 22 with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are two educators for every four students at Pathways, and each classroom has a maximum of four students. The Pathways program also offers the students significant clinical support, including from psychologists, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, and nurses.

To meet their students’ needs, the Pathways staff adhere to a philosophy that includes approaches that aren’t typical in other school settings. One of these differences is the Pathways focus on flexibility—designing educational plans that cater to the child’s needs instead of forcing students to conform to a rigid, predetermined structure. Roya Ostovar, PhD, director of Pathways Academy, who established this philosophy in 2001, explained that this approach is particularly critical for students with ASD.

“Every child deserves and must have the opportunity to learn and reach their full potential in a supportive and understanding environment that meets their needs, as opposed to requiring a student to change how they learn to fit a school’s preconceived teaching method,” explained Ostovar. “I believe it is an ethical and moral mandate for clinicians and educators to meet the needs of this population and not erroneously treat them as students who are incapable of learning.”

Pathways Academy
The staff at Pathways Academy is committed to helping students succeed

That focus on the student’s 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 a field trip.

“A lot of the other schools use a method called applied behavior analysis,” said Laura S. Mead, MSEd, Pathways Academy’s educational administrator. “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. However, for a lot of kids on the spectrum who also have strong anxiety, that’s a recipe for huge meltdowns.”

Karen Steves, Pathways Academy milieu manager, 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 preach natural consequences,” explained Steves, who has been at Pathways for more than 17 years. “If you’re yelling and screaming, other kids aren’t going to want to be around you.”

Another important pillar of the Pathways approach is to consistently provide the students with various types of support throughout the day, regardless of the setting. This includes sensory integration support—exposing the students to sensory stimulation in a structured, repetitive manner—social and self-regulation skills training, and developing coping strategies. Ostovar explained that students “can’t learn these skills well if they are happening in isolation,” so all staff have been trained to provide support in all these areas, which, in turn, promotes generalization of skills—taking a skill learned in one setting and applying it in another setting.

Ostovar, who is internationally recognized for her extensive work and expertise in autism spectrum disorders, oversees the training and service delivery. She is a published author, and her books, including The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder: Easy, Everyday Solutions to Sensory Challenges and Five Things You Need to Know About Social Skills Coaching, are incorporated into the training and treatment approach.

According to Ostovar, the switch to this seamless approach to teaching and caring for students created an optimal environment for learning, wherein students are calm and able to negotiate socially. “It was a wonderful transformation over the past 17 years,” said Ostovar. “We saw a significant decrease in behavioral challenges at school and challenges at home reported by parents.”

These educational and behavioral advances lead to different positive outcomes, depending on the student’s goals. 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 always to move kids to a less restrictive setting,” said Mead. “You always want to bring them back to their district if you can. But for a lot of kids, the goal when they come here is to help them to like school again, to have a place where they’re willing to come learn. For some kids, this will be where they want to stay and graduate.”

While Ostovar is heartened by the continued success of Pathways students, she remains concerned about how they will fare long after they leave the program. That is why she recently established a new pilot program that teaches older students the transitional skills they need to be successful in adulthood.

“Of course, Pathways is an amazing place to learn,” said Ostovar. “However, I want our students to be prepared and have the skills they need to live an independent, happy, and productive life after they leave the program. My wish is to prepare our students more effectively for when that time comes.”

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