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At McLean’s Pathways Academy, it’s the “little gains” that may not seem like a lot to others but are huge to the students who find challenges in everyday activities, said Susan Zucker, MSW, LICSW, clinical social worker/family liaison at the school since 2010. It can be seemingly simple things such as choosing lunch, understanding someone else’s perspective, or recognizing when the person you are talking with is no longer interested,” she said. “While these things may come naturally to many of us, they can be a challenge for our students.”
The school is designed to meet the psychological, social, and academic needs of children and adolescents ages 6 through 22 with autism spectrum and related disorders, said Zucker, who previously worked as a clinical social worker at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Children’s Hospital, and before that was Program Director of Children’s and Family Services for Jewish Family Service of Metrowest.
“What’s unique about Pathways is that it’s a different approach for kids on the spectrum because we don’t use an applied behavioral analysis approach (ABA)—we use a sensory integration, social pragmatics and neurodevelopmental approach intertwined into our program,” she said.
“Teaching the students social pragmatics and using sensory integration strategies helps them learn to self monitor and regulate so that they can better tolerate their environment and become more independent,” said Zucker, who has a dual role at Pathways. She provides clinical support to the students as well as serves as the school’s family liaison, providing support to parents throughout the day. In addition to talking with parents, she sets up times for them to talk to teachers, oversees family educational programs, and runs a monthly coffee hour in which parents have the opportunity to share their experiences.
“I let them know I can be their first call,” she said, explaining that the school emphasizes the importance of two-way communication with families. “We call when their child has done something wonderful and we also call when they’re having a bit of a tough time. We ask the reverse—that they let us know if we should be aware of anything in particular when their child comes to school.”
One particular breakthrough for a student, she said, came after the Super Bowl. “After the game, he came in and said, ‘I’d much rather talk about my video game but we should talk about the Super Bowl because that just happened.’ That was a great moment because the student recognized the importance of talking about something other than his preferred topic. Seeing that they’re utilizing what we’re teaching them is one of the reasons I really enjoy working here.”
For some of the older students, Pathways allows them to continue to grow and develop so that they are ready to move on to college or a job. Zucker recalled the progress made by one student who came to Pathways when he was 18 and stayed until he was 22. “He had transition needs (independent living) and didn’t have the skills for the adult world. He came here for academics but he also really benefited from our social pragmatic skills, such as understanding how the world works, how to deal with other people, and how to be flexible.
“During his time here he was able to succeed academically, pass the MCAS and meet the academic requirements for graduation. He also worked on his transition skills. As part of his community service, he learned about recycling and participated in a campus-wide program where our students collect recyclables. He was able to parlay this experience into a paying job in the community, handling the recycling at a local store. He was able to move on to community college as well and he’s doing great.”
“If we tried to send him to college when he was 18, none of that would have happened,” she said. “We help families understand that sometimes their teens do need that extra time. It’s about helping our students move on when they’re ready.”
Zucker added there also many rewarding moments that come from the school’s programs that allow them to grow in different ways. In addition to the transition skills programs like recycling, Pathways has a partnership with Berklee School of Music. “A student who is quiet or shy can shine in that environment. One may belt out a beautiful song or play an instrument,” she said. “We get to see them shine in a way we don’t get to see very often.”