McPolin Elementary School offers an intensive autism program |

McPolin Elementary School offers an intensive autism program

Douglas Greenwood, of the Record Staff

"Autism does not mean low I.Q.," said Katy Leslie, the autism specialist at McPolin Elementary School. Children who have been diagnosed with autism and other developmental disorders often have poor verbal communication skills. A student who appears to have a disability often suffers from a behavior that interferes with his or her being typical, she added.

The new program at McPolin is not for every child who has been diagnosed with autism, said Nicole Todd who is the Park City School District special education coordinator. It is designed specifically for those students who are unable to function in either a traditional classroom or the standard special-needs environment.

Few programs throughout the state are as intensive or focused on student progression as this is, according to Leslie. Leslie works with two students in her classroom and coordinates with Mindy Graham, a teacher aide trained in applied behavior analysis, to create a constant, one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio.

"They are in here because they need really intensive, one-on-one, discrete trial-training, which is what I do with them," Leslie said. "They are with special-ed staff every step of the day."

The two students started in the program when they were preschoolers and are now in first and second grade.

The class is set up to document and measure each student’s behavior in order to identify factors that lead to growth and success, as well as what things may hinder that progress and what potential causes can be attributed to any negative behavior.

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"Every single thing that we do in this room is recorded," Leslie said. "If I have a student put a puzzle together, I’m recording any instances of self-injurious behavior; if they are biting themselves or poking themselves in the eyeball."

"I’m recording, ‘How long into the task are those negative behaviors happening?’" she added." But I’m also recording, ‘Are they getting those three puzzle pieces in within a three-minute time span?’"

When everything a student does during the day is recorded, a student’s current behaviors and struggles can be compared to previous instances, Leslie said. She said she can identify how the kids are progressing and what helps or what impedes their progress. Each student has a binder in which information is collected and reviewed.

The goal of the program is to help her students advance and be able to thrive in a more natural learning environment, according to Leslie. Her two students are unable to observe and understand the behavior of others and, therefore, have difficulty learning from what they see.

Right now, they will not likely join a traditional general-education classroom, Leslie said. But they may soon be able to go into a standard special-education environment where they can learn to better interact with others.

"I don’t want to put them in a classroom where they can’t acquire new skills," she said. "I really want them to be in the most natural environment where they can learn. That will probably, in all reality, look like a typical special-needs classroom."

Leslie has been working with special-needs education for about three years. While working with seventh and eighth-grade students in Wasatch School District last year, she realized she could impact more students working in early-education.

"What makes this program different than more typical special education programs is it works on putting behaviors on extinction that interfere with daily life," she said.

Leslie said she expects her students who go through the program will acquire the social and behavioral skills they will need for the rest of their lives.

"I have seen a vast improvement in their behavior, being able to stay on task and language development," said Tom Burchett who was the special education coordinator for the district last year.

In addition to working closely with the students in her program, Leslie also consults with other preschool-age students at McPolin who have been diagnosed with less-severe cases of autism. Leslie said she works with them to develop appropriate social skills for classroom work.

"They are able to acquire academic skills in the general-ed classroom," Leslie said. "So to pull them out and do one-on-one is a step in the wrong direction."