Education Update’s Special Education Conference Highlights Advances As Well as Need For Improvement
By McCarton Ackerman
Although special needs education has advanced greatly in recent years, professionals in the field still believe there is a great amount of work to be done.
This was highlighted in detail at Education Update’s New York Citywide Special Education Conference on February 28th at Hunter College. Fourteen experts in different fields presented findings of their own individual studies and offered solutions for how to further advance special needs education in the city. In addition, a panel of four parents shared their trials and tribulations in living with their special needs children.
The program opened with remarks by Dean David Steiner of the School of Education at Hunter College, who spoke not only of the great gains made in special needs education within the United States, but the urgent need to keep pushing forward.
“Classes for the mentally retarded used to be held in the basement of public school buildings,” said Steiner. “We’ve come a long way since then. If you were in other countries, you would find the world is in awe at what we do in special education. That’s not an excuse for not to continuing to push forward and make strides, but we’ve lead the world in this department.”
The conference was heavily focused on the subject of autism which, according to speaker Catherine Lord, Ph.D., Interim Director at the Asperger Institute of the NYU Child Center, is typically categorized by deficits in communication, social interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests.
“Between 2 and 5, children diagnosed as autistic can make the greatest gains,” said Lord. “Small differences such as having a few meaningful words at age two may affect how autism is manifested in the preschool years.”
According to Dr. Lord, one of out every 94 boys are diagnosed with autism, and the disease is more prevalent than childhood cancer, diabetes, or AIDS. An appropriate program for children with this condition calls for a variety of treatments including speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and sensory integration.
“We’ll attack a cognitive piece or a social piece, but often not the whole thing,” said Dr. Lord. “It’s important to work from where these children are and where they are going next.”
Shirley Cohen, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Special Education, Early Childhood Program at Hunter College, gave a presentation entitled “Creating Options for More Able Young Children with ASD in the NYC Public School System.” She spoke at length on the ASD Nest Program and its Inclusion Kindergarten classes.
The ASD Nest Program features 12 students with a 2:1 ratio of typically developing children with children on the spectrum. The program receives the services of a speech therapist, occupational therapist, and social worker. It incorporates a mainstream curriculum with an additional focus on social understanding, communication skills, and self-regulation.
Cohen said that some of the primary issues with the program were teacher selection in the face of seniority and budget cuts, a lack of space, and sufficient autism expertise among many educators.
“In addition to these problems, there were also a substantial number of children who could not succeed in the ASD Nest Program, but were not severely impaired,” said Cohen.
This issue led to the Intensive Kindergarten program, a transitional one year program to help enable students to function in an ASD Nest Kindergarten curriculum.
Kathy Burris, MLIS, Assistive Technology Coordinator at Landmark College, gave a presentation on assistive technology in special needs education. She spoke about deconstructing existing stigmas and the theory of universal design, in which no one learning style or mode of expression takes precedence.
Cecelia McCarton, M.D., the Founder and Executive Director of The McCarton School, also gave a presentation on effective integrated educational models for children with ASD.
The morning concluded with a presentation by Karen Gorman, Technology Evaluation Coordinator, and Susan Abdulezer, District Multimedia Coordinator for District 75, New York’s special education district. Their presentation was entitled “Infusing Instruction with Assistive Technology,” and included examples of several different tools which could be used effectively in classroom settings to help better enable communication for special needs students.#