SHERIDAN — Joannie Thelen has been a teacher in the autism program for Sheridan County School District 2 for 15 years. However, every morning when she arrives to work at Woodland Park Elementary, she knows the day will be anything but routine and unlike any other day she has had in her many years of teaching.
“You are never on top of your game. It changes all the time,” she said. “I always joke and say, ‘I have a master’s and 31 years of experience but bet on the child! They will always outfox you! You are continually adapting and redoing your program all the time.”
Autism is a brain disorder with several characteristics, including reduced social interaction and communication skills and tendencies to engage in repetitive behaviors. In addition, many people with autism have heightened sensitivity to various sensory stimuli, including sight, smell or sound.
“The frontal lobe isn’t wired correctly with the rest of the brain,” said Thelen. “So their communication and language is affected because the two hemispheres of the brain are not communicating.”
Thelen has a master’s degree in special education and in her three decades in the classroom has worked with students with a range of physical and mental conditions. But the past 15 years, she has worked exclusively with autistic students.
“It is such an intriguing disorder in that if you’ve worked with one child with autism, that is all you have done,” she said, noting that each case of autism is very individualized and specific to each person.
Children with autism experience characteristics on a spectrum. For example, one child may be sensitive and reactive to bright colors, while another child may experience anxiety with loud noises or strong scents.
“How it is portrayed in each child is different,” explained Thelen. “For each characteristic of autism, you have to define it for that individual child.”
“We have a meeting every morning and look how we are going to approach that behavior as a group,” she said, about how the teachers deal with the daily issues that arise with students. “Maybe one child all of a sudden wants to be constantly touching you as they are talking to you. We prescribe it in terms of what we are all going to use (to address the behavior). We do that detective work every single morning. We try to stay comprehensive and united in our approach. You really have to be clear on your expectations.”
The program takes children from all elementary schools in SCSD 2 and averages seven to 10 students each year. The students are bussed to Woodland Park and spend full days with Thelen and her team of five paraprofessionals.
“We moved here from Florida last summer. This is by far the best therapeutic and educational program I have ever encountered,” commented parent Amanda Hill, on the Woodland Park Parent Teacher Organization Facebook page. “The teachers and therapists are amazing at Woodland Park, as are the fellow parents. We feel so blessed to be here. My children love to interact with all children and the more inclusion, the better.”
“We have high expectations for these children because we know they are very capable,” said Thelen. “So they will follow the rules, they will listen and they will do their best work, because we believe in these children and we know what their potential is.”
Because autistic children rely heavily on visual versus verbal cues, Thelen and her staff carry a set of laminated cards with graphics of various actions they can show students when they ask them to do something.
For example, instead of asking a student to go sit at their desk, Thelen can show the student a picture of someone sitting at a desk indicating that is the action she wants.
“It symbolizes expectation,” she said.
Autistic children often have strong reactions to change in their environment, so the classroom is arranged so that every part of the room has a specific purpose and the arrangement is seldom changed.
“It has to have purpose so it makes sense to them and be structured so they know what to expect,” said Thelen.
“We try to regulate the environment,” she added. “When I hire staff I look at tone of voice, body movements and we don’t allow perfumes or body lotions, so the kids aren’t going to be imposed on their senses in any way from the people they work with.”
Thelen’s concern for minimizing distraction and creating continuity in the classroom is primary. She even made a homemade “muffler” for the intercom speaker in her classroom, so that the announcements are less intrusive to some of the students.
She said the intensive program often results in significant improvement in behavior and learning. She noted that one student at the beginning of this year would bite or head-butt people and had difficulty remaining seated for more than a few minutes. He is now reading and improving his focus.
“They make growth academically,” she said, about the students in the class. “Their behaviors don’t interfere with their learning because we know how to deal with them correctly. Engulfed in all their characteristics of autism are very bright, capable children who can behave and who can learn.”