At Morgan Autism Center, student success is first and foremost our central priority. Once our adult students reach the age of 22, they graduate. Some move on to more challenging adult programs while others work to help within homes – perhaps helping their parents within their own homes, or working in a group-home setting. With each scenario comes a list of tasks and tools needed for successful social integration, and Morgan Autism Instructor Hailey Barker understands the importance of putting these practices into real life out in the community.
Every Wednesday, students are participating in what is referred to as Community Based Instruction; Hailey and her aides each pair with a student and travel to one of 3 assigned community sites, or, practice riding as a passenger on the bus. At each site, students must practice social skills learned in the classroom, along with an assigned vocational skill required at each site – this might include cleaning, doing laundry, planting and gardening, or shopping. Hailey recognizes that learning these skills is only the first step; “In order for the students to really be successful, we have to take them out into the community where they will face very real challenges and need to be able to overcome any obstacles set before them.” She notes that while the classroom provides a safe and secure learning environment, the students will need to be able to perform tasks in places with particular behavioral expectations and they’ll need to be able to use volume control, exercise patience, and communicate effectively in order to succeed.
Hailey has put together this integrative program that she hopes will become a bimonthly rotation, so that each student has the opportunity to visit each site and practice the corresponding vocational skills and leisure skills associated with each task. At this point, she has established connections with 3 locations in the community; in each locale, students can practice techniques and simulations they have learned in class in a social setting. Morgan Autism Center staff work hard to find connections within the community. One of these connections is California Native Garden Foundation, here two students practice cleaning the center, sweeping, planting new plants, watering, and coiling hoses to properly put away materials. These activities allow the students to be able to practice vocational skills in a real communal setting – not only with the appropriate materials, but also with social interaction. Three students accompanied by aides in a 1:1 ratio also travel to Daisy’s Laundromat and employ the skills they’ve learned for collecting, sorting, and preparing laundry for the wash. Here they have the opportunity to perform the laundry routine they’ve learned in class – washing, drying, folding, and return it to classrooms. The Laundromat is not only excellent vocational training, being able to do laundry is an important life skill that will hugely benefit the students in the future.
In addition to the much needed vocational training, students also partake in community Leisure activities that will help pave the way for more successful integration in more community locations as they mature. Currently, three students accompanied by 3 aides travel to the Rose Garden Public Library where they practice behavioral skills like browsing, selecting books or videos, exercising patience, and maintaining appropriate library etiquette. These skills will not only help them in this location, but will give them the practice and the confidence to employ these skills in similar locations like a grocery store or a shopping mall. Another important life Leisure skill is being able to ride the bus. At this time one of Hailey’s students practices riding the bus with an aide so that he will be able to perform this skill on his own once he graduates. This community Leisure Activity is particularly important because not only does it offer a means of transportation, it allows for the student to practice more complex activities like planning a bus route, preparing money and paying the proper amount of fare, paying attention to stops and practicing when to get off of the bus, and riding the bus with appropriate behavior and etiquette. They ride to De Anza College and have lunch in the cafeteria- offering yet another opportunity to practice eating in public within a busy, more complex social setting.
Each of these community activities serves multiple purposes – yes vocational skills and behavioral skills are at the forefront, but things like communicating with others, ordering, keeping a wallet, budgeting, and having responsibility for possessions are life skills that will continue to benefit the students as they continue to integrate into the community. Hailey has organized the program in such a way that the students perform their Vocational tasks and Leisure Activities in order to earn their lunch for the day. Parents of the students at Morgan Autism Center contribute $30 per month toward the students’ Wednesday Community Integration outings and lunches. Because food is very reinforcing, it serves as an excellent positive motivator for the students. Not only do they take turns getting to select their favorite lunch, they have the chance to practice ordering food, waiting in line, eating in public places and using appropriate social behavior. Students also have the opportunity to practice budgeting their money and being responsible for their money, which is an important life skill for each student to develop.
Developing these life skills served as the foundation upon which Hailey structured the integrative program and it’s particular Vocational and Leisure sites. Not only do the sites serve to reinforce specific tasks the students learn in class daily (laundry, cleaning, etc.), many of them are desirable activities for her students, thus serving as positive motivators for appropriate behavior and successful integration. Reading books and watching videos are activities that many of her students find highly desirable, so allowing them the opportunity to practice the activity in the Public Library gives them the chance to do something they enjoy in a social setting that may be more challenging for them. She notes that for one of her more social students riding the bus was a goal, so allowing him to build the skills to do so and develop a comfortable routine sets him up for the best possible integration:
“Riding the bus was a specific goal that a student of mine was working on and it has provided him with more opportunities for mainstreaming because he’s a social guy who enjoys meeting new people and conversing/being around his peers. The garden center has been a great option because it allows my students to practice following multiple step-by-step directions and has brought them closer to nature and how our food grows.”
In the classroom Hailey and her aides use simulated situations to prepare the students for these real life outings. They watch YouTube videos that break down routines like doing laundry or planting new plants in a step-by-step fashion so that students learn a familiar routine that they can call upon once in their vocational or Leisure setting. She also uses Communication Books which layout the schedule for the day, the step-by-step guide to their particular activity and task and pages with the options for their lunch of choice. She has found the books to be particularly effective in giving the students the information they need to feel as comfortable and as confident as possible as they work toward mainstreaming successfully.
Since beginning the Wednesday Community Based Instruction, Hailey and her team have taken students with high anxiety and noise aversions who have trouble leaving the classroom, out into the community where they have thrived. One student has reached a point where he is independently and successfully completing every step to his gardening responsibilities. This is a huge improvement from when he first started and needed multiple prompts to complete each step. Another student, who had trouble entering a new building, is now spending an hour in the public library browsing books with his peers. A student who has been practicing folding clothes in the classroom is now able to put her skills to use and fold the clothes of her school and return them to the proper classrooms. When given the opportunity, Hailey feels that “our students can surprise us and show us that they are capable of so much. These community outings, while they may push our students, allows them to truly shine and prove their capabilities.” Hailey is looking forward to expanding this program and continuing to reach out into the community to provide real life community based instructions for our students here at the Morgan Autism Center.