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Flagler and , Volusia County Educators Using Innovative Tools to Teach Children with Autism

May 8, 2012
Source: The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Nine-year-old Zach Robich impulsively teeters his outstretched hand back and forth in front of his face. Stopping to stare at the short-haired dachshund that is sitting on his desk, he uses an index finger to flap one of the ears up and down.

Bella, a certified service dog, has been employed by special needs teacher Jennifer Middleswart since mid-March to help her educate the eight autistic children, including Zach, assigned to her class.

“Bella is just one more thing in my bucket of tricks,” said Middleswart, who teaches at Belle Terre Elementary School in Palm Coast. “She is just another tool I can use to help calm the kids and focus them.”

Students at Middlesart are among 118 children enrolled in Flagler County schools who have been diagnosed with autism, quadruple the number from five years ago. In Volusia County, the number has nearly doubled, from 368 in 2010 to 711 this year, according to county data.

The county figures reflect a state and national increase in the number of children who have been identified with autism spectrum disorder. Since 2008, 10,000 more children in Florida have been diagnosed with autism and reported to the Florida Department of Education. It is estimated that 1 in 68 children nationwide are autistic, according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report released March 28.

Autism spectrum disorder and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development, according to These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Why the number of children with autism has increased “is an important question and one that we are working hard to answer,” said Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, chief of the developmental disabilities branch of the CDC. “It is not known whether increases in autism over time are due to a true increase in risk of developing autism ... or whether they are due to changes in awareness and in how children are identified, diagnosed and connected to services in local communities.”

The CDC study also found that almost half of autistic children have an average or above average intellectual ability (an IQ above 85) compared to a third of children a decade ago.

“I think it is the lower-functioning children that maybe the public needs to be made most aware of,” said DeLisa Robich, 37. She said her son started exhibiting symptoms of autism as early as age 3. “That is the kid people see at the grocery store doing this” — she pivots her wrist — “with their hand and doing a lot of almost, like, baby talk because he is not verbal.”

Zach is among a quarter of the people with autism who cannot communicate with words, according to the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. He uses a portable picture communication device, called a ProxTalker, that lets him choose a picture of what he wants to say and places it on a button that will echo the word out loud.

“So when he wants Bella, he’s able to push "I want Bella,” said Middleswart, who has worked in special education since 1992.

But instead of waiting for a student to request Bella, Middleswart often places the 5-year-old, black-and-white dachshund wearing the pink harness on each desk throughout the day, or whenever she notices a child severely “stimming” — short for self-stimulatory behavior — a characteristic common in people with autism.

“Pet the dog,” Middleswart said to Zach, interrupting the gesture he is making to graze the pads of his fingers against her fur.

While some students “seem extra affectionate” with Bella, Zach does not seem too interested in dogs, said DeLisa Robich, who noted her family of four, which also includes her husband and a 12-year-old son, has a 2-year-old Lab named Kona.

But for others in the class of students in second through fifth grades, such as Christian DeJesus, 11, and Jazmine Armond, 9, Bella helps them pay attention.

“I expected (Bella) to stop the stimming, because they would have something to do with their hands ... but I did not expect for her to refocus them on what I am doing; that shocked me,” said Middleswart, who breeds dachshunds with her husband. When she noticed that the demeanor of Bella was significantly more docile than their other seven dachshunds, she decided to have the dog certified for service in September 2012.

“Some students can really benefit from a service dog,” said Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services for Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy and research organization. “A dog provides a connection and sense of companionship, and also being out in the community as they walk their dog creates a connection.”

Autistic children can also use an iPad or other devices to connect with people and even develop more speech, Goring said.

“iPads and iPhones have been a tremendous benefit as a means to communicate,” said Goring.

Zach uses an iPad but for more leisurely purposes. After riding the bus home from school, which he does because he enjoys it so much despite living only a mile away, he routinely takes off his shoes — “the only one in my house that does, imagine that,” said his mom — goes to the bathroom, asks for crackers, a drink and his iPad. For about 40 minutes before heading to occupational therapy, he sits in a rocking chair and watches videos or listens to his favorite song, “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts, his mother said.

Other autistic children will use a computer tablet to acclimate to a schedule or learn how to complete a job step-by-step, according to Goring.

To help educate parents and teachers about the best way to support a student with autism, web-based instructional systems provide helpful information, according to Nancy Redmond, director of Exceptional Student Education for Volusia County.

Programs such as Autism Navigator, Rethink Autism and the SCERTS Model, all used in Volusia schools, provide different services like goal tracking, instructional videos and lesson plans, she said.

Redmond noted that while support should be tailored toward each child, communication impairment is a typical attribute in autistic students — ranging from those who are nonverbal to those who are gifted.

“Zach does not have something really, really great going on in his mind; there is no indication he is going to be a math wiz,” DeLisa Robich said. “As a parent, it is sometimes hard to accept, but I would just rather figure out what the real deal is and how to help him instead of just hoping for things that are never to come.”

And if getting Zach a little dog like Bella is one way to help him, she added, she would really like to.

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