Oklahoma City teachers work to transition autistic students to regular classrooms

The number of students with autism in the Oklahoma City School District has tripled in the past decade. Teachers are working to help transition this growing population into mainstream classrooms.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: February 10, 2012

A boy sat in his chair, coloring in different shades of blue. “Hey,” he said to no one in particular. “Hey. Hey.”

He turned and looked out the window.

“Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez.” He smiled and put his hands over his ears.

A brown-headed kindergartner got up from his chair. “I'm not, I'm not, I'm not sitting down,” he told one of the teachers, who coaxed him back to his seat.

Next to him, a little boy with missing front teeth lightly wrote his name on a work sheet: a connect-the-dots Valentine.

“Each one's a puzzle,” said their teacher, Linda Felton. “They have it all in there.”

Felton's classroom in Sequoyah Elementary School is dedicated to her puzzle pieces — children with autism. She has nine students ranging from kindergarten to third grade. They come from several schools in the area. Two assistants help her.

They work on math and reading, but students work on eye contact and using complete sentences, as well.

“The goal is to teach the life skills and social skills so they can leave this room,” Felton said. “That's the goal — let them be in a regular classroom.”

Classrooms such as Felton's have become more common in the Oklahoma City School District. The number of children diagnosed with autism in the district has more than tripled in the past 10 years.

Last month, a kindergartner with autism walked away unattended from Oakridge Elementary School in southeast Oklahoma City and made his way home. District officials apologized for the incident and promised to work to prevent something similar from happening at Oakridge or any district school.

Officials face a growing challenge of transitioning children out of specialized classrooms and into the mainstream student body.

Autistic count climbs

The Oklahoma City School District has seen an explosion in the number of children diagnosed with autism, said Michelle Miller-Hayes, director of special education for the district.

The number of autistic students has risen from 57 in 2001 to 197 last year, Miller-Hayes said.

That's an increase of 245 percent. The general student population went up about 7 percent during the same time, according to district statistics.

The demand is growing for special education for autistic students, and administrators, teachers and staff are working to help those children succeed, Miller-Hayes said.

What success looks like is different for each student, she said.

“Everything is based on the child and who they are,” Miller-Hayes said.

Each autistic student has an individual learning plan, she said. Students can have unique assignments that develop skills such as independence and sociability. For example, a student may be assigned to speak to at least five people while making eye contact each day.

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The goal is to teach the life skills and social skills so they can leave this room. That's the goal — let them be in a regular classroom.”

Linda Felton

Sequoyah Elementary School teacher

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