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November 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 3

A Year with Bobby

Second graders understand respect, diversity, and community in a new way in one inclusive classroom.

Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests itself differently in each autistic person. Two common problems are impaired communication and an inability to relate socially. Bobby was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, extremely energetic 2nd grader; he was also autistic.
Initially, I wasn't convinced that Bobby should be included in my general education classroom. In his 1st grade class, he had frustrated his teacher and peers with frequent classroom disturbances. I was concerned about balan-cing Bobby's needs with those of my other students. I felt unprepared and undertrained to deal with Bobby's situation. What began as a burden, however, ended as a joy and gave me a sense of fulfillment.
During the summer before Bobby entered my class, I read about autism and learned that because each autistic child has his or her own individual strengths and weaknesses, I needed to tailor academic goals to Bobby's specific learning abilities (Autism Society of America, 2001). In addition, Bobby's instructional assistant and I observed a professional working one-on-one with an autistic child. We learned the importance of providing routine and repetition, as well as structured activities that offered Bobby numerous opportunities to practice skills (Whelan & Walker, 1999). Throughout the year, Bobby's aide and I worked with the school's learning assistance and special education program teams to create meaningful activities tailored to Bobby's learning needs. We integrated some activities into whole-class projects, and Bobby completed other projects on his own or in a small group.
At the beginning of the year, Bobby was essentially nonverbal. He seemed to respond positively to the calm, structured classroom setting, and I sensed that although he wasn't communicating with words, he was listening to and remembering my instruction. When Bobby uttered his first words in the classroom, a hush of astonishment fell over his peers. Then one student blurted out in surprise, "I didn't know Bobby could talk."
As the year progressed, he began to trust me and to give one- or two-word answers to questions. Bobby's verbal responses continued to elicit expressions of wonder, encouragement, and sometimes relief from his classmates. His response time at the beginning of the year was long, so the other students often waited patiently for Bobby to talk. After a few months, when Bobby began to feel safe, he would respond almost as quickly as the others. When he did speak, his voice was soft and unclear, but Bobby was patient with me; he would diligently repeat his answers when I didn't understand him. Together, we learned to communicate. Gradually, he began to speak more clearly and in longer sentences.
The students in my class were gracious and compassionate as they struggled to make the environment conducive to Bobby's learning, even when it required some sacrifice on their part. The year was their success as much as it was Bobby's or mine. I was delighted by the students' sensitivity to Bobby and their willingness to put his needs before their own, such as waiting patiently (and sometimes for long periods of time) for Bobby to respond. Because Bobby felt secure in the classroom and was not bombarded with such distractions as excessive noise or commotion, he was able to challenge himself and perform many of the same tasks as the other students. Eventually, Bobby spoke in complete sentences. Granted, he never spoke as much as the other students, nor did he initiate conversations as often as they did. Nevertheless, his conversations revealed an increased awareness of the world around him.

Becoming a Community

Bobby loved machines—especially buses. He enjoyed field trips, less because of the trip than because he got to ride on a school bus. His anticipation generated excitement in everyone. One day, students from another school came to visit our campus, arriving on a charter bus that was much fancier than a school bus. Of course, Bobby had to investigate. He was amazed at the plush seats and impressed with the bathroom in the back. All the gadgets fascinated him, especially the buttons next to the driver's seat. He amazed and amused everyone on the bus when he grabbed the microphone and said in a strong, clear voice, "Welcome to our town." This was a first: Bobby had initiated a response to his environment. He was learning what it meant to be part of a community and had taken a tremendous leap to initiate a conversation and make the visitors feel welcome.
Bobby had his own personality and his own sense of humor. We laughed together, we became frustrated together, we helped one another learn, and we grew into a real community. As the year unfolded, the other students and I no longer saw Bobby as the boy who had autism, but as Bobby, a 2nd grader who had wishes, dreams, likes, and dislikes just as everyone else does.

Trial and Triumph

The year was not without struggles. Bobby's vocal outbursts unsettled us, and he had a tendency to wander away. His interactions with other children were often fraught with problems. We learned how to increase Bobby's independence while still giving him the individual attention he needed. We had to make many adjustments in his academic learning because his reading, writing, and math skills were far below grade level. Bobby caused fewer distractions as the months went by, however.
I attribute a large part of the success of this experience to the small number of students in my class. Further, I tried to keep the environment as calm and structured as possible, and I held high behavioral expectations for all of my students—including Bobby. Often, Bobby would sit close to me so that I could discreetly touch his arm if his behavior became too distracting; usually, that would settle him.
Another key component to the success of this venture was Bobby's full-time aide. She was firm yet loving, and she gave Bobby individual attention. For 60–90 minutes each day, she took Bobby aside and worked with him one-on-one on academics (when he was unable to keep up with the rest of the class), helped him adjust to our classroom structure, and addressed his behavioral and personal needs. As Bobby learned to cope with the classroom environment, his aide gradually weaned him from her social assistance so that Bobby could become more independent.

Lessons from Inclusion

  • Read the literature. Talk to and observe those who have experience with students who have similar disabilities and needs.
  • Work with available resources.
  • Work closely and communicate frequently with learning assistants as well as with the parent(s) of the included student.
  • Be consistent in your work with and treatment of the included student, holding for him or her—as often as is reasonable—the same high expectations of behavior as you do for the rest of the class.
  • Build a learning community among all the students in your class.
  • Enjoy the experience. Maintain a positive attitude, realize and accept your limitations, and recognize areas of growth, no matter how small.
About a month before the end of the school year, I had to leave my position to begin doctoral classes. Although I had discussed my departure with the class, Bobby was silent on the subject, and I couldn't tell how much he understood about my leaving. One day not long before I left, the students and I were watching a video. Bobby seemed agitated, and so I asked him to sit next to me on the sofa in the back of the room. He leaned toward me and said, "You're going away! You're going away!" I didn't know quite how to respond. I just said, "Yes, Bobby, I'm going away." Then I leaned over, gave him a little hug, and said, "I love you, Bobby." Bobby didn't speak; he merely took my arm and gently stroked it back and forth, back and forth. He loved me, too.

Autism Society of America. (2001). Educating children with autism [Online information package]. Available: http://autism-society.org/packages/educating_children.pdf

Whelan, M., & Walker, N. (1999). Effective teaching strategies and essential behaviour prevention techniques. Paper presented at the Autism 99 Conference. Available: http://trainland.tripod.com/margaret.w.htm

End Notes

1 "Bobby" is a pseudonym.

Elizabeth Zylstra has been a contributor for Educational Leadership.

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