Like many other 6th-graders, 11-year-old Adam plays Minecraft, watches sports and is a whiz at puzzles. In school, although he’s fascinated with the dates and historical figures he learns about in social studies, he struggles to connect with his peers during group work and sometimes yells loudly to make his displeasure known.
Adam is capable of doing grade-level academic work but he is on the autism spectrum. Fifteen years ago, there were few options in New York City’s public schools for students like him. They could attend their neighborhood schools, where they might encounter teachers who weren’t specifically trained to work with students on the spectrum. Or they could be placed in District 75 programs, where their contact with typically developing peers would be limited.
In 2003, researchers Dorothy Siegel and Shirley Cohen launched a new program at PS 32 in Brooklyn designed to address the needs of high-functioning students with autism. They christened their program ASD Nest, because the model is designed to “nest” children with autism in fully inclusive classrooms.
Nest has become so successful it now serves 1,200 students with autism at 43 schools across the city at all grade levels.
Like integrated co-teaching classes, Nest classes are co-taught by a special education teacher and a general education teacher. But Nest classes are smaller, with no more than five students with autism and between eight and 20 typically developing students, depending on the grade.
Before leading one of these classes, both teachers take up to two graduate-level courses on autism and behavioral theory and workshops on executive functioning and social development.
“It helps to take those classes to learn cognitive theory, the way people learn and behave,” says Dave Grosshandler, a general education social studies teacher in a Nest classroom at MS 447 in downtown Brooklyn.
Students with autism in Nest classrooms may struggle with social interactions, sensory issues or behavioral challenges. The driving philosophy behind Nest is to address these challenges by embedding supports within the classroom.
“The idea is to make the classroom itself a therapeutic environment,” says Lauren Hough, the co-project director at NYU Steinhardt’s ASD Nest Support Project, which provides ongoing training and support to educators working in Nest classrooms.
What makes a classroom a therapeutic environment?
“When you walk into our classroom, you will see voice scales, a break corner, visuals on students’ desks, visual charts throughout the classroom, sticker charts and a flow of the day,” says Katie Lukasik, a 2nd-grade Nest teacher at PS 186 in Bellerose, Queens. All these visual aids serve as anchors for students who use them as reminders of where they are and what they should be doing.
Each child’s social behaviors are addressed during a period called Social Development Intervention, which takes place three times a week with a speech therapist and a classroom teacher.
Some key Nest strategies will be familiar to most educators, like movement breaks for supporting students who need to refocus and the five-point scale for helping students understand how much noise they’re allowed to make.
The difference is that in a Nest classroom these strategies become even more explicit to help students understand how and why they should behave in the classroom.
In a 6th-grade ELA classroom at MS 447, for example, teachers Jennifer Carlson and Noah Garcia use a large visual timer to count down the time left in group work, during which each student was assigned a specific role. When time was up, Garcia called for students’ attention by saying, “We’re going to connect our thinking to the front of the room now. That means I should see our bodies turned toward the front of the room.”
Signs on the walls demonstrate the hand signals students should use if they want to use the bathroom, take a break or grab a “fidget” object from a box in the corner.
John Hagan, a social studies teacher and the chapter leader at MS 447, says the Nest program has just as many benefits for typically developing students as it does for students on the spectrum.
“Students learn a level of compassion and acceptance that maybe other middle school students don’t,” he says.
Indeed many of the strategies prized by Nest teachers constitute good practice for any educator.
“That focus on understanding what makes someone tick and how to best support them is applicable to any classroom,” says Hough of NYU Steinhardt.
As students who started out in Nest in elementary school move on to high school, college and beyond, perhaps Nest’s biggest impact will be a shift in the way we think about people whose minds work differently.
“When that’s part of the language of the classroom, it demystifies a lot and creates acceptance and understanding,” Hough says. “There’s a paradigm shift in our embrace of neurodiversity as just another type of difference that we see strength in.”
These two books are available for purchase for AAPC Publishing, a publisher that produces research-based literature concerning the autism spectrum:
- The ASD Nest Model: A Framework for Inclusive Education for Higher Functioning Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, edited by Shirley Cohen and Lauren Hough
This program uses a positive behavior support approach and incorporates strategies that address areas of difficulties common in children with autism spectrum disorder, specifically sensory functioning, social relatedness, self-regulation, managing anxiety and selective cognitive problems. This program helps children with ASD function comfortably and successfully in mainstream settings in their schools and communities, whenever feasible, with decreased need for professional support.
- Everyday Classroom Strategies and Practices for Supporting Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, by Jamie Bleiweiss, Lauren Hough and Shirley Cohen
This timely autism spectrum disorder resource clearly communicates how to create a classroom in which every learner succeeds with specific and easy-to-implement strategies for students who require minimal supports, as well as those who require more intense interventions. In compliance with current trends in education, it incorporates evidence-based practices, positive behavior supports, and uses Response to Intervention (RTI).