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Andrew’s Awakening: AEA/School Team Help Boy Learn Positive Communication

April 8, 2014

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Waukee junior high student Andrew Alfano enjoys dancing at his weekly Sunday dance class. Perhaps he enjoys dancing as a way to express himself as he has limited ability to do so verbally. Andrew has autism and is mostly non-verbal; however, with the help of his teachers and Heartland AEA staff, Andrew has found success learning to express himself.

Andrew and his family moved from out-of-state to the Waukee area three years ago. At his new Waukee school, Andrew used a device to help him communicate, needed a shortened school day and received direct instruction in a 2:1 setting which included a special education teacher and an associate in a contained classroom.

In November 2011, Andrew stopped using his communication device and became more physically aggressive and even violent toward his teachers. For his safety and that of his teachers, it was imperative to find out what Andrew was trying to communicate with his behavior so he could be taught more productive and appropriate ways to express his needs.

Heartland AEA staff members Stacy Volmer, a school psychologist; Emily Donovan, a school social worker; Vicki Sanders, a school social worker; Kris Larsen, a school social worker; and Frances (Budreck) Davis, a school Psychologist, conducted a functional behavior analysis to determine the function or “why” Andrew was engaging in problem behavior. The team saw the most problem behavior when work was presented and his favorite items (videos and iPad) were removed.

After the assessment and with the support of the district’s special education director and building principal, Donovan and Larsen spent several weeks training two associates and Andrew’s teacher on how to implement his behavior intervention plan.

“The paraeducators and building principals were some of his (Andrew’s) biggest cheerleaders,” Donovan said. “They could see the sweet boy in his eyes and knew that there was a really great kid with lots of skills and talents inside waiting for us to untap them.”

Donovan, Larsen and Andrew’s teachers did preference assessments to identify his favorite things so that they could be used as rewards to reinforce appropriate behavior. Andrew was taught how to request “play” by using sign language after he had finished a task or when he needed a break. His teacher would then let Andrew take a few minutes to watch a video or use the iPad. With this strategy, Andrew learned that using a more appropriate form of communication was more effective in getting his needs met than problem behavior.

With the AEA’s assistance, Andrew’s school team was quickly able to transition him from a contained setting (a room with just him and adults) to a classroom where he shared a teacher among seven students. Currently, Andrew is working in a classroom where he has his own workstation and a 1:1 associate who helps to facilitate his behavior plan. His ability to communicate his needs has been the most significant success. He is able to participate in small group instruction during science and language arts and attends family and consumer science and PE classes with his general education peers.

“This has been an amazing collaboration of people using their knowledge and strengths in order to help a student have success,” Kristine Hickman, Andrew’s special education teacher, said. “We’re thrilled with what Andrew has been able to achieve and continue to look forward to seeing him continue to grow.”

Donovan echoes Hickman’s enthusiasm and also attributes a large part of Andrew’s success to his family, saying, “Andrew’s family was integral in trusting the process and hanging with us through some stressful and trying times.”

Andrew’s mother, Miki, appreciates the help and support that was given to Andrew and thanks everyone who has helped her son.

Watch Andrew’s transformation in the video below.

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