Berkeley's Focus on Teaching Kids with Autism Could Benefit the Entire District



Sheryll Holmes teaches 3rd-5th grades in an Autism Classroom at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley. Seven years ago, the Berkeley School District began for the first time to teach some of its preschoolers with autism in dedicated Autism Classrooms. The School District now has 68 students with autism and is pondering the expansion of the program into the middle school and high school levels.

Those pre-schoolers with autism that began classes in 2002 are now in the 5th grade and Sheryll Holmes is very proud of their progress. She told the School Board Wednesday that she teaches each child a standards based curriculum, as well as life skills and interaction with peers, to help each kid reach their full potential. She's especially happy when her students choose to play basketball or jump rope with other kids during recess.

The most up to date data available from the CDC is that 1 in 150 children in the U.S. have autism.

Holmes says children with autism often face huge challenges just learning to be in a group setting as well as fitting into a structured learning environment. A class room with more than 10 students can be enough to overload the senses of a child with autism, and a large part of her job is "sensory management."

Because teaching plans that would meet the needs students with autism simply don't exist, Holmes told the School Board that she designs much of the curriculum for her students from the ground up. In order to effectively teach children with autism something like long division, Holmes will segment lessons into one individual skill set at a time.

Repetition and building familiarity with the subject is also key. Holmes will often give her students the same worksheet over and over until they have learned the steps by rote, before moving on to new and unfamiliar problems. Then, as an important reminder in the following weeks, she'll return to the skill her students have already learned. Holmes says this is because children with learning differences seem to have "one pathway into learning," and they benefit from another go at the lessons.

Perhaps most promising for the District as a whole, Holmes believes that it's likely the techniques she's developed to teach her students with autism can be used in non-autism classrooms. Students with less extreme learning difficulties that are struggling might achieve better results with her step by step lessons.

Holmes and the School Board Members agreed that there is a need for more teacher training district wide.

Eric Klein