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CSIU, schools work to support students with autism

As featured in The Daily Item

Dale Keister worked directly with children enrolled in a Head Start program as the Lewisburg Area High School junior studied early childhood development but in a flash, it ended because of the pandemic.

The coronavirus disrupted the hands-on experiences gained by Keister and others enrolled with the CSIU Autistic Support program at Lewisburg.

“Oh, it was more than disappointing,” Keister, 16, said of the sudden end to his Head Start opportunity. “Some of the kids moved on to kindergarten so I didn’t get to say my final goodbyes.”

This school year, teachers like Kara Druckenmiller at Lewisburg Area High had to bring job skill-building opportunities into school.

Druckenmiller explained that prior to the pandemic, students washed dishes at Bucknell University, worked in dining services at RiverWoods, helped with janitorial services at Best Western and operated an in-house coffee cart at the high school.

The Autism Support program shifted to find work around the school. Some students help dust and vacuum the building. There are classroom cooking lessons with an electric skillet and microwave. Keister this week began helping in classrooms at Kelly Elementary. 

“They’re getting to that transitional age. Our students will be graduating in a few years. We want to get them ready to transition into adulthood and be successful as they go into the community,” Druckenmiller said. “Most of our students have some type of sensory or communication issue so they need to practice those skills. It’s very important to learn to deal with different places.”

Stephanie Michaels, director of special education, Shikellamy School District, said her district purchased “bucket hats” and fitted the brims with face shields to make it more comfortable and to ensure the students could participate in activities throughout the school day. Time and preparation were needed, too, for students learning remotely along with their learning coaches, typically parents, to adjust to a digital experience.

“The hardest challenge is teachers being able to collect data to monitor individual goals students have in their education plans. Teachers also struggle with feeling they are spending enough time with students virtually,” Michaels said.

Teachers have spent more time individualizing transition activities, like cooking and cleaning, Michaels said. Community-based training at Shikellamy has become virtual, she added. These are controlled experiences and don’t fully mimic the external stimuli students will encounter outside the school setting, she said.

“Students are resilient.  Families have done a great job introducing some of the necessities students are now required to have (masks) and I believe are flourishing being back into a routine. Parents in our district have done a great job working with their students throughout the school closure and without the family engagement, students could have had significant setbacks which at this time, we are not seeing in our district,” Michaels said.

Erin Demcher began working last week as a behavior specialist at Warrior Run School District. She also founded the Danville company, Autism and Behavior Resources.

Virtual classes, job experiences and field trips can be effective tools for learning, Demcher said. Some students are taking virtual trips to the grocery store, for example, and learning how to order items online. For virtual students, there remain opportunities for one-on-one in-person speech and occupational therapy sessions, as well, she said.

“Work with the teacher, work with the (educational) team to develop what’s best for your student,” Demcher said.

Dr. Thomas Challman, medical director of Geisinger Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute, gave similar advice: “Keep advocating for your child.”

Teachers, students and parents all are facing challenges not seen before due to the pandemic, he said. Families must partner with teachers and other educational personnel to keep students’ Individualized Education Program on track.

“The practical hands-on real-world exposures to different work environments for the purpose of building different skills has really been put on hold in a lot of places. It’s difficult to do hands-on things virtually. So, students who lose the opportunity to get out and get vocational experiences in different settings, it makes it really challenging,” Challman said.

“It’s difficult to predict what the cost will be for the disruption in the educational system,” Challman said.


Student concentrating on school work

Dale Keister does some class work in the autistic support classroom at Lewisburg Area High School.


Teacher talks about autistic support classroom  

Lewisburg autistic support teacher, Kara Druckenmiller talks about some of the differences in her class this year versus last school year..


Student works on vacabulary with classroom assistant  

Lewisburg student Cameron Alexon works with classroom assistant, Kristen Fleck on vocabulary in the autistic support classroom..


Job coach helps autistic student with vacuuming  

Job Coach Barbara Brodie, left, helps Alex Shrawder with his vacuuming at the Lewisburg Area High School as part of his autistic support classroom work.