TASD Academic Spotlight: PA Verbal Behavior Project reaches children with autism

Children with autism show the same need for social interaction and affection as any other person, but the way social interest and affection is demonstrated may not be as readily identified to those who haven’t lived with a child with autism.
An autistic child may not communicate as much and the style of communication may not be effective with the larger world of listeners, but the children do indeed communicate.
The Pennsylvania Verbal Behavior Project is a grant program funded by the PA Department of Education and the Bureau of Special Education. The project is in its first year at the Tyrone Area School District (TASD). It serves 13 students with autism from the elementary level to the middle and high school level, and includes two children from Bellwood.
The project is staffed by consultants who provide guidance on effective instruction for students with autism. The TASD consultant is Linda Franchock, who works for Intermediate Unit 11. Barbara Mozina is Tyrone’s Special Education Supervisor.
The program at Tyrone consists of two classrooms – an elementary class taught by Autistic Support teacher Carrie Grassi, and a middle and high school class taught by Autistic Support teacher Emily Oakes.
It is currently funded through next year, and the district hopes that the program is completely implemented by the end of next year. If funding is no longer available, the school will still be able to conduct the program.
The purpose of the PA Verbal Behavior Project is to enhance learning and communication to improve the lives of children who live with autism and their families. The project provides training, consultation, resources, and information in classrooms that will provide specified teaching procedures using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the Analysis of Verbal Behavior to improve communication, social, self-care, and leisure skills of students with autism.
ABA is the science of studying behavior and applying data supported techniques to increase and/or decrease behaviors that are meaningful to the student and student’s social environment. Verbal Behavior is behavior that is mediated by the behavior of another person – what a student does in most of his or her interactions with other people. It is communication.
Among other things, it also develops and implements Individual Education Program (IEP) goals, based on individual student needs, using effective instruction based on principles of ABA and Analysis of Verbal Behavior. It teaches staff to utilize the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS) as an assessment tool and curriculum guide.
Before autistic children are taught, their skills are assessed. That is done by using the Basic Language Assessment Form (BLAF) and the ABLLS. The child is taught then to cooperate and enjoy being in the environment they are in, instead of forcing the child. Teachers associate themselves with the child’s favorite items or activities, in hopes that the child will then approach the teacher. It’s pairing with reinforcement.
The goal is to teach the child how to ask for what they want, say what things are, answer questions, follow directions, imitate, and use toys or other objects appropriately.
Grassi, elementary school Autistic Support teacher, said that she is extremely pleased with the amount of support the program offers. She thinks a really great quality of the program is the assessments that are used.
“It is so thorough that I feel I really understand my students and their needs, and I have hopes of seeing great gains in my students over the next couple of years,” added Grassi.
“Initially it’s a change, so typically an autistic kid doesn’t respond well to change,” said Mozina, Special Education Supervisor at Tyrone. “The typical response is they’re going to reject it and fight it, but now they’re starting to realize it. It’s totally lined up with a reward system, so now they’re seeing a reward to be able to use language (to ask for things). They’re accepting it now.”
Mozina said the program has been “extremely” successful, because it’s individualized. It looks at every child’s needs and it addresses those needs, goals, and objectives. She said it drives each IEP that a kid has, based on how the child comes out with the assessment.
Tyrone’s previous curriculum geared towards autistic students was asking too much from the students, according to Mozina. She said that with this new program, the school is asking exactly what the students needs are and bring them up slowly in the process.
“What’s most gratifying for the teachers is that they have a direction,” said Mozina. “They have materials, they have an Internal Coach in Linda (Franchock) who shows up regularly, and they can get help continuously because autism is such a new disability and schools are doing something about this.”
The PA Verbal Behavior Project puts in the hands of teachers exactly what they need to do to meet the needs of the kids in the program, as indicated by their disability. It contrives situations where the child asks for things, instead of doing things by routine.
“It’s really starting with baseline concepts of language and how to use language, what to do with language, and it’s starting with the very bottom stuff and working its way up,” said Mozina. “Then we have some kind of building block to move on to academics and reading.”