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Autism Program Gets Creative

parade of teachers for autism group 


In mid-March, EASTCONN Autism Program (EAP) staff found themselves switching unexpectedly from an in-person, center-based program to a new, all-virtual teaching and learning system. The transition required swift, intensive planning, collaboration and creativity in order to build a comprehensive, at-home learning plan for each of EAP’s 16 unique learners.

 “If a child has an autism spectrum disorder, in some cases, we have to think so far outside the box to teach them remotely that there is no box,” said Dr. Ravit Stein, EASTCONN’s Director of Psychological and Behavioral Consultation Services, who oversees EASTCONN’s Autism Program. 

EAP staff mobilized and quickly developed a personalized, online learning framework, which focused on the central tenets of EAP’s program: promoting functional independence and communication skills, while capitalizing on opportunities to apply new life skills in students’ home settings. It was no small feat to figure out how to deliver instruction virtually and ensure that students’ and families’ needs were being met. 

EAP teachers Becky Gianforte, Nicole Constantine and Claire Pellino knew that listening to families and understanding parents’ concerns was central to providing meaningful support. They developed a tool to learn what the families of students with disabilities really needed during extended school closures. That tool was shared widely and is now being used by educators across Connecticut, as they develop distance learning for students with complex needs. 

Stein noted that EAP families faced significant challenges during the pandemic, since they were often not trained in the highly structured, explicit teaching techniques used at EAP. 

EAP staff provided coaching and direct instruction to broaden EAP parents’ skills as they worked with their children in home settings.

“We are committed to building the capacity of the amazing parents whom we support, to maximize outcomes for all the students in our program,” Stein said.

Personalized family coaching calls were made regularly to each family. Calls included an array of services, such as training on assistive technology, physical therapy exercises, or ways to make reinforcement more effective. For students who were not yet able to learn virtually, parent coaching calls proved to be an excellent way to stay connected and ensure student goals were addressed. Among students who could learn on platforms like Zoom, each had opportunities to brush their teeth, for example, in their own bathrooms with their occupational therapist on-screen “beside” them, providing guidance and tips for parents to help maximize their child’s independence.

Supplying such critical supports to parents helped ensure that all EAP students, including those who couldn’t access a screen, could continue engaging in meaningful online learning opportunities at home. 

According to Stein, EAP instructors and instructional assistants spent long hours and days creating at-home enrichment activities, driving across the region to deliver materials to families on a weekly basis, and participating in weekend car parades and reverse parades to stay connected with their students, many of whom didn’t understand why their routines had changed.

Extended school closures also created an unexpected silver lining, Stein said. Closures provided staff with new opportunities for extensive training to support EAP’s complex learners. 

Stein and Amy Margelony, EASTCONN’s Pupil Services Director, had high praise for EAP staff. 

 “Our ability to provide comprehensive and meaningful schooling at home lies in the creativity of our special education teachers, instructional staff, board certified behavior analysts, interventionists, as well as our related services professionals,” said Stein. “They commit themselves to the planning, implementation and delivery of programming for our unique learners every day.”

“This is an amazing group of educators,” observed Margelony. “They’ve responded in every way possible to support these exceptional students during the COVID-19 crisis. There was never a moment of hesitation. I am honored to be part of such a remarkable team.” 

Please contact Dr. Ravit Stein to learn more at rstein@eastconn.org