Monday, May 25, 2009

Adults on the autism spectrum work as teachers at California preschool for children with autism

From the Ventura County Star in California:

Preschool student teacher Ben Brock (pictured with his son Elijah) sat on a child-sized chair at a table and poured vinegar into a soda bottle containing baking soda, stones and a few other small objects. The four preschool-aged children sitting around the table watched, wide-eyed, as a raisin and a cork popped to the surface of the bottle and bubbled onto the table.

“Look, they’re dancing!” said Brock, 30.

The kids chirped in delight, except one little boy, who jumped and covered his ears.

Brock immediately understood the little boy’s reaction, because like him, Brock has a form of autism. He knows people with autism tend to have extremely acute hearing. The hiss of the chemical reaction when the vinegar penetrated the baking soda sounded loud to the boy.

“He’s like a thermometer among kids with autism,” said Felice Fausto, Brock’s sister and director of the family-owned school where Brock teaches — the Footprints Preschool and Family Resource Center in Camarillo.

Fausto has a master’s degree in child development and extensive experience with autism that goes beyond academics. Like Ben, the siblings’ father, Michael Brock, 56, has a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome.

“My heart just went out to him,” Michael Brock said of his son. “I could see him doing things I was doing.”

To Fausto’s knowledge, hers is the only school in Ventura County in which adults with autism are teaching children with autism.

The national chairwoman of the Autism Society of America, Dr. Cathy Pratt, said she has heard of it, but it is still fairly rare in America. Pratt thinks it makes perfect sense.

“They have an intuitive understanding of the behavior. They can interpret the signs,” said Pratt, who is based out of the University of Indiana.

Footprints grew out of a day care center that Michael Brock and his wife, Connie, 57, founded at their Camarillo home in 2000. At the time, Fausto was teaching and had begun a home service program for kids with autism. The family decided to combine their resources and make the school a program that included both typical kids and those with autism.

Ben, who is earning his child development degree from Moorpark College, teaches at Footprints with Fausto and several other staff members. Michael and Connie Brock act as support staff.

The program includes a preschool, day care and after-school care. Four of the five members of the Brock family are involved in running the school. The Brocks’ oldest son, Phil Brock, 37, runs a grocery store. Phil, Connie and Fausto do not have autism.

Because they watched the pain Michael and Ben suffered, the Brocks are passionate about inclusion. “People have no idea what inclusion is,” Fausto said. “They’re terrified of kids with autism.”

Autism is a developmental disorder that covers a wide spectrum. Symptoms may include repetitive or obsessive behavior, difficulty reading expressions or social cues, and difficulty communicating.

Autism was poorly understood when Michael Brock was growing up in Camarillo. His grades were bad and he was frequently expelled from school. He couldn’t read and had trouble communicating, so he often relied on his fists.

It wasn’t until he was a married father of three that he realized he had been suffering his entire life with Asperger’s syndrome. The Brocks took Ben to a medical specialist for a diagnosis, and Michael then had himself diagnosed.

“I had no idea there was an explanation for the things going on inside of me,” Michael Brock said. “I was able to forgive myself.”

With the correct therapy, Michael Brock went on to earn two degrees from Moorpark College.

“Most people think people with autism and Asperger’s are dumb or can’t be helped,” Ben Brock said. “In fact, most people with Asperger’s are extremely brilliant. You’ll find that if you take the time to listen to them, you’ll find they have something good to say.”

Pratt believes understanding and integrating people with autism into society and the workplace is critical, if for no other reason than the fact autism is on the rise in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the nation, with a 10 percent to 17 percent growth annually. CDC statistics from 2007 show that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans have some form of autism.

“With increased autism, these are the future policymakers, business people and future parents,” Pratt said.