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A School That’s Shaping the Future For Children With Autism

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News, Science.
January 4, 2011

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Click here for information on the Good Shepherd School.

For data about autism in the United States and Oklahoma, click this link.


Parents seeking treatment for children with autism is on a steep rise in Oklahoma. With the demand there, a new school solely devoted to children with autism is trying to give those kids a better chance to succeed in the world…

3 year old Nathan Small had been in and out of day care after day care. Instructors told his parents he was too disruptive, and wouldn’t cooperate. And then just weeks before the Good Shepherd school opened, his parents got the diagnosis: Nathan had autism. That brought them to Good Shepherd.

“Phenomenal,” says Nathan dad Sean Small about the school.

“He’s able to now articulate what he wants and it’s not just on pointing. He’s got an idea of expectations that we’re seeing.”

Sean’s wife had quit her job to stay home and take care of Nathan. But with the school, she can get back to work. Only seven students are enrolled at the school, located at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City.

“Many of the children who are in the public schools, who do get one on one, they may be with someone who has some training but many times the people who are working in the public schools don’t have the opportunity to get the training that’s needed,” said Dr. Donna Kearns, Good Shepherd Principal.

The progress is widespread, says Sister Catherine Powers, Superintendent of Schools for the Oklahoma City Archdiocese. She visits Good Shepherd from time to time. On a recent trip, Sister Powers greeted a student who had been silent in the past. Instead of just silence, there were words.

“And the little one said ‘Sister’. Now this was a child who did not even speak when she came. Now that thrilled me.”

Students go through intensive work to get to that point. Good Shepherd uses Applied Behavior Analysis, using data to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

“We always try to look at why is this child doing what he or she is doing and then teach them a new skill to be able to get what they want that’s more appropriate,” said Principal Kearns.

“So instead of hitting someone we’ll teach them to talk and say hey I need your attention and that way they can get attention appropriately without hitting someone.”

A.B.A. isn’t a unique approach: many Fortune 500 companies use it to get the most of their workers. What’s different at Good Shepherd is the parent involvement. Rene Daman, Director of the Oklahoma Autism Network, has watched the school from a distance.

“When you have everybody on the same page so to speak. With parents having equal input to what the priorities, the goals and the concerns are then the child is going to have more consistency across environments from home to school and you’re going to see more success.”

Just ask Sean Small and his wife when they go in to talk about Nathan. They buy in.

“It lets you know, it’s just not them shipped off to somewhere and they get this training and you’re not even aware of what they’re learning.”

With seven students and at least one aide for each, the school tailors each day to the individual. No day is typical because no one does the exact same thing.

However, there are some universal rules. Every activity is about 15-20 minutes, the children are encouraged to say hi to at least their aide and another student, and group sessions between activities work on developing social skills.

“She is really bright but she needs to have those skills developed in how to relate to other people,” said Sister Powers.

“How do you even speak? So when I come here I see such hope for their future of learning how to be people who can function well in society, if they have some help.”

Just like every other school, there are rewards for good performance. For some, that means a chance to play on the iPad. More and more educators and academics are noticing the impact the gadget can have on students with mental disabilities. Principal Donna Kearns is often amazed.

“Some of them are a whiz at it. They can certainly get through the iPad much faster than I could and find apps much faster that the rest of us didn’t even know existed, and are really stimlulated by it.”

“So we may give them, if they’ve done their work, they may get one minute to use the iPad and that’s a reinforce for them and then they’ll have to do more work in order to get to use something on the iPad later on.”

The school isn’t cheap at $21,000 a year. As Sister Powers told me, that doesn’t cover the real cost of attendance. She says money is constantly on her mind: how to raise more, how to pay back loans, how to keep the doors open. But is it worth it? She answers without hesitation.

“I’ve seen what early intervention for these children does for their future development and I see my grand-niece has just improved so much over the years, in a public school setting.”

At nine years old, students will graduate from Good Shepherd. And those involved say they hope the progress made will continue in public schools.

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