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.
For older students, an aide may show them how to move from class to class through the busy halls. Some listen to audio books on special MP3 players. Others may use devices that can read books aloud.
If a student is struggling and the teacher has hit a dead end, a team of district specialists — occupational therapists, psychologists, speech pathologists — will come and help them both.
The key, Miller-Hayes said, is for parents and educators to work to
“It takes a team,” she said. “Together, as a team, we can really make it
Having a solid support team in place can help reduce bullying, said Rene Daman, director of the Oklahoma Autism Network at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
“When the adults are open and supportive and good models, the kids typically follow suit,” Daman said. “That can be a nice protection policy for the child with autism.”
For Felton and her students at Sequoyah Elementary, communication eliminates bullying, Felton said. When a student leaves Felton's room, she talks to the student's new teacher, who in turn talks to the class about respect and understanding. A teacher's aide will help the student transition to the new room.
The children, Felton said, are always kind, especially when they understand their new classmate has special needs.
“If anything, they'll want to take them under their wing and help them,” Felton said.
Individual plans made
On a recent school day, Felton sat at a small table with Zada Lamb and Gabriel Brown and organized flash cards with vocabulary words.
Zada has no short-term memory, but she's a great reader, Felton said. “The boy eats pizza,” Zada read from one of Felton's books.
“Can you sharpen my pencil, please?” Gabriel asked.
“Gabriel, that was an awesome sentence,” Felton said. “Thank you.”
Gabriel quietly sings a song from the Disney movie “Tarzan” while he waits.
Children with autism fall in a broad range of functionality, Felton said.
Some are very high-functioning and spend part of their days in mainstream classrooms.
Others are very low-functioning; some essentially shut down and lie on the floor.
A few of Felton's students who have Asperger syndrome are experts in their own fields of interest. A boy knows everything about plumbing and water. A girl can play four video game controllers at once. An older student, who is now in a regular classroom, is a specialist in rocks and jewels.
Regardless of where Felton's students fall on the autism spectrum, her expectations are the same.
“These kids can learn,” Felton said. “I have very high expectations for these babies.”
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.”