Like most schools, Giant Steps teaches its students independence. But at this Buffalo Grove school, a private school for children with autism, independence takes on new meaning, from learning how to say hello in the hallway without prompting to venturing into a store without a meltdown.
Here, the little achievements are just another piece of the puzzle falling into place for the kids.
"It’s just that you know there is so much locked inside," says Bridget O’Connor, the director of operations at Giant Steps. "How do you find those pieces and unlock that key that will either let them communicate better or make them more comfortable in their world or make them more successful?"
Each student is different so each has a customized education plan.
There are only 40 spots for students, with 10 in each of the four sections that range from primary to high school. Each student has a personal assistant who works to coach, motivate and help them learn while a teacher leads each section. Students attend four sessions a day, two classroom sessions and two therapy sessions.
The school’s teaching methods are different from those in public schools, using symbols, pictures and numbers to help each student make sense of their world, which at times can be confusing and overwhelming. "It’s a very black and white world for them," O’Connor says.
The school also has cubby-style desks with high walls to help students, many of whom have sensory issues, concentrate. The partitions on the desks shrink as the students learn to tune out the sounds around them on their path to independence and higher grade levels.
"We push for independence in every way imaginable, whether it be from getting their snack bin and bringing it to their table or cleaning up after themselves or putting their chairs away," says Joy Soriano, the primary classroom teacher.
But it takes patience and sometimes a lot of time to reach goals.
During a recent visit, after saying the Pledge of Allegiance, a boy in the intermediate classroom throws the flag at his assistant. "Hand it to me, please," she says, handing it back to him. He throws it again. She asks again and again that he hand the flag to her until he finally hands the flag to her, politely this time.
Daily communication with parents is vital to bridge the space between school and home. "Our parents are so involved," Soriano says.
Each student has a notebook that moves with them during the day. For example, the music therapist may note that a young girl spent the music therapy session banging the drums, but the more important part of the note records that she said "hello" to her therapist without her assistant’s help.
At Giant Steps goals aren’t merely achieved working in the classrooms. At least once a week, classes take field trips into the community to help them learn how to deal with the challenging variables in the world around them.
Because Giant Steps only takes students who have been recommended by the school districts, the staff reaches out to families not enrolled in the program through The Autism Center for Excellence, which exposes those families to the different therapy sessions.
O’Connor says she hopes to build a larger school where experts can train outside teachers in Giant Step’s proven learning system, especially as the number of children with autism climbs.
"These kids are just coming in droves and the school districts aren’t going to be able to handle them," O’Connor says.
• For more information on programming at Giant Steps Illinois and the Autism Center for Excellence, visit www.giantstepsillinois.org.
Kate Pancero is assistant editor at Chicago Parent and editor of Chicago Parent’s E-news Update.