Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tennessee program readies autistic students for high school

From The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.:

If there is a single phrase Hernando Middle School teacher Cherie Fowler (pictured0 could pick to describe the differences in the education her students face as opposed to the rest of the student body it would be, "fair is not always equal."

Fowler is the Asperger/autism inclusion teacher at Hernando Middle. The students in the program she began two years ago attend the same academic classes as general education students. However, others may see the assistance given these students -- who are often academically gifted but suffer from social deficits -- as making school easier for them.

Fowler's students are allowed to type assignments others would have to write by hand. They are allowed the use of other assistance devices and some assignments can be shortened. But each student is still required to have passing grades and meet all the state of Mississippi benchmarks for their grade level. It's their job to stay on par academically and it is her job to do everything possible to help them get through the day.

What the extra assistance does, Fowler said, is level the playing field.

"For a student with Asperger syndrome, making it through an eight-hour school day is like working 48 hours straight for the average adult," Fowler said. "For a general student having a substitute teacher would just be part of their day but for an Asperger's student a substitute or anything else outside of their routine can make getting through the day very difficult. If I have to go into the classrooms with them or follow them around all day to make sure the day is a success for them, that's what I do."

Each of Fowler's students' day is just like every other student including participation in activities like band or physical education with the exception of one class period designed just for them.

The goal of Fowler's program is to teach her students to express themselves better so they are successful in their academic careers. She works toward not only helping them be successful at the middle school level but to prepare them for general education high school classes.

The students Fowler works with are from schools across the county and were identified as students who would personally benefit from her program. The program can hold between eight and 18 students. This year Fowler has 13 students.

They come to Hernando Middle for Fowler's help, but the school has also gained a reputation for being very accepting of diversity.

"I take some time out at the beginning of the year to educate each general-education class about what Apserger's/autism is," she said. "Years ago many of the students wouldn't have even heard of it but now in a class of 30 I usually have some that know someone -- a sibling or a cousin -- who suffers from it."