Monday, January 26, 2009

CT: Debate rages over treatment of autistic student

Education experts discuss tactics of ex-Fairfield teacher
By Genevieve Reilly
staff writer
Updated: 01/25/2009 08:45:45 PM EST

The incident left many shocked and outraged.

A special education teacher at Dwight School in Fairfield, in an apparent effort to distract a 6-year-old girl with autism from fixating on her striped shirt and scratching herself, had the girl take off the shirt. The child then sat in the classroom naked from the waist up for about 15 minutes before a paraprofessional who saw what had happened notified the principal.

The teacher, Elizabeth Valeriay, 53, of Madison, was arrested earlier this month by police and charged with intentional cruelty to persons. She is no longer employed by the school district and her case is awaiting disposition in Bridgeport Superior Court.

Valeriay's lawyer, William Bilcheck, had no comment on his client's case. "We just had the initial arraignment [Wednesday] and we'll be back in about a month's time," he said. The next scheduled court date is Feb. 13.

The Dwight incident occurred Oct. 6, 2008, and the family was notified the next day by the school principal. The student's father contacted police Oct. 26 to document the incident and make sure no abuse had occurred.

Valeriay defended her actions to the police during the investigation, instigated at the request of the student's father. A special education teacher for 30 years, Valeriay told them that removing the source of distraction -- in this case, the shirt -- is an accepted method of handling a child with autism. Valeriay holds a master's degree in special education and was employed by the Fairfield school district for 13 years.

After the incident surfaced, a rumor circulated among parents that the paraprofessional who reported the incident to the principal was fired, but Matt O'Connor, communications director for the Fairfield paraprofessionals' union, said that is not true.

O'Connor said during the district's investigation into the incident, the paraprofessional who worked with Valeriay was interviewed. But because it involves a personnel matter, he said he could not comment further.

Message boards debated whether the approach taken by Valeriay was the correct one, but as those in the field will agree, what works for one student might not work for another.

And while she wouldn't comment specifically on the Fairfield incident, since she knows Valeriay, Sara Reed, executive director of the Autism Society of Connecticut, did say distraction and/or removal of the object "is a technique that is often used in dealing with fixations."

"Autism spectrum disorders affect each person differently, and while there are overarching areas of similarity, for each and every individual on the spectrum, intervention approaches need to be tailored to that particular individual," said Reed. "We often say that a teacher who is working with a child on the autism spectrum needs a large tool box filled with many different tools that are useful in different circumstances."

The problem, Reed said, is there are few "road maps," and teachers and parents must "use the old-fashioned, trial-and-error methods relying on information about the child's needs to determine which approach to try first."

The tools chosen, she said, need to be the ones most appropriate for that child. Many work, but only in the right circumstances. Often, she said, a teacher, school district or parent will have success with one approach and try to use it on the next child without taking into consideration the differences between the two children.

"It isn't the program or approach that is the problem in and of itself, it is just not the right one at the right time," Reed said.

Karen Cubbellotti, director of children's services at the Kennedy Center, echoed Reed's comments.

"That's very true, just as it is with any child," Cubbellotti said. "What works with one child doesn't necessarily work with another child. You need to know that child."

What adds to the complexity of autism and its treatment, she said, is that no one knows what causes autism. Some professionals subscribe to using just one type of approach, while others advocate a combination of different methods.

"There are different types of interventions, there could be an endless list of different approaches," Cubbellotti said. "There are right ways and some wrong ways to intervene" but again it all depends on the individual child.

The Kennedy Center, she said, provides training programs and workshops for the families of children with autism, along with opportunities for social interaction. The workshops are also open to area professionals.

According to the Autism Speaks Web site, 1 in 150 children is diagnosed with autism, with a new case diagnosed almost every 20 minutes. Autism manifests itself in many different forms, and while children who have it are likely to exhibit similar traits, according to the organization, "They're also as individual as the colors of a rainbow, each one managing a grab bag of symptoms." One may rarely speak and have difficulty learning to read and write, while another may be high functioning. Some may have sensory issues or repetitive behaviors.

Under the law, students are to be educated in the least-restrictive environment. For some, that may mean mainstream classrooms, while others need a more specialized learning environment.

Reed said an "individualized education plan" is created for each special education student to review goals and objectives and determine how those will be met, and with what teaching methods, professionals and placement.

"If you are trying to hang a curtain rod using screws, you can hammer away at the screw all you want," Reed said. "It doesn't matter how good that hammer is, you need to use a screwdriver. The right tool for the right circumstance."

Wendy Anderson-Brachfeld, president of the Fairfield Special Education Parent-Teacher Association, said it would be wrong for her to speculate on the incident at Dwight School since she had no specific information, but said the PTA group is there to provide parents of special education students with support and resources. It does not, however, provide legal advice or individual advocacy.

"We do not address individual concerns," Anderson-Brachfeld said. "Our purpose is to address broader issues that impact all children with special needs in our community."

Begun in 1999, the Fairfield SEPTA grew out of a parent support group at the Early Childhood Center, with 44 members. Today, there are 212 members, including both parents and district staff members.

Asked what parents' level of satisfaction is with the education their children get in the Fairfield schools, Anderson-Brachfeld said, "As with any PTA, some members are unhappy with their children's experience and others feel very lucky to have their children in this system," but said she wouldn't want to answer for the membership as a whole.

"Our overall message and approach as a PTA is to work in a positive and collaborative manner with our school system and our community," she said.

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