Friend or Foe

As a first-year special education teacher at Ringburg Elementary, Cindy Jacobs navigates the sensitive territory of autism in the classroom and with the family. Despite the input of many qualified specialists, concerned parents, and a hardworking staff, it's not easy to know what's best for her student, Randy Mueller.

Cindy Jacobs prepares for her first day teaching special education at Ringburg Elementary.

Cindy carefully placed the cut-outs of faces—one happy, one sad, one mad, and one neutral—on the felt board that hung near each child’s mailbox. She would use these with students to help them develop a vocabulary of emotions and to navigate their feelings and relationships.

With just one day to go before the arrival of students, she wasn’t sure how to describe her own feelings. Here she was, newly graduated with a master’s degree in special education and many hours of classroom experience as a volunteer and student teacher—and yet, these were real children she’d be working with, real children for whom she was solely responsible. The prospect was daunting, to say the least.

Tyrone will support Randy throughout the day.

It wasn’t just children she had to manage, though. She also had two aides and she really wasn’t sure how they’d respond to a first-year teacher’s directions. They’d spent this first week getting to know each other and preparing for the upcoming year. She already felt at ease with Tyrone Washington, who, despite his six foot height, conveyed a gentleness that relaxed her. He had a younger brother born with cerebral palsy whom he’d helped care for growing up, and this clearly had influenced his career choice. Her other aide, Janelle Hunt, had her own ideas about how a special ed classroom should be run. A few of the comments she’d made about students made Cindy wince. Cindy knew she had to address this, but for now she wasn’t sure how.

The first project she’d given Janelle and Tyrone was to lower the stimulus level of the classroom. She’d worked with them, purchasing floor lamps equipped with lower intensity bulbs, wiping surfaces with a mild natural cleanser to remove the intense disinfectant smell left over from the summer cleaning, and arranging a quiet spot students could go to when they needed a break. Tyrone helped her move furniture and built a desk adapted to fit their student who used a wheel chair. Janelle busily cut out shapes and laminated picture cards, all the while maintaining a running commentary that included many references to the way the last teacher she’d worked with, the evidently perfect Mrs. Murray, had arranged herclassroom.

Cindy reads through her students’ files.

She’s just trying to help, Cindy attempted to convince herself and turned her focus to her students, six K-1 children, with a range of disabilities. Some would spend the entire day with her, while others rotated in and out of general education settings. Donna, Tyler, and Serena were students with mental retardation and severe academic delays. Donna was six, and Tyler and Serena were both seven. Their goals related to letter identification, letter sound, and number sense. Then there was Marty, who, due to social and academic concerns, was identified as having a developmental delay. His teachers last year suspected that he had a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), but so far, that wasn’t on his IEP. He spent the majority of the day in the self-contained classroom and part of his day in a regular first grade room. Another student, Adrian, had cerebral palsy (CP) and academic delays. He would receive all of his language and math instruction with Cindy’s class, but would move to a general ed first grade classroom for the rest of the day. Cindy couldn’t quite yet see how all of these different schedules fit together.

Cindy’s biggest challenge, she feared, was Randy Mueller. Both the school psychiatrist and the principal had stopped by to chat about Randy. Evidently his high-powered parents made sure their child got lots of attention. Now six, Randy had been diagnosed with autism at age two-and-a-half—a good sign, since early identification and provision of services could make a real difference for these kids. She now sat down at her desk to study his IEP, which had been developed the previous spring.

Read Randy’s IEP.

His parents seemed like real advocates, Cindy noted as she leafed through other documents in his file. After going through Due Process, they’d gotten the district to provide 10 hours of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) per week, 2 hours of speech therapy weekly, plus 2 hours occupational therapy. The family followed that up with 10 hours of private ABA, plus physical therapy! This year, the school ABA therapist, Patricia Edwards, who came via the community services board, would be spending two hours working with Randy in the mornings before going to another school.

Read a definition of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Despite all these therapies, Randy’s negative behavior last year included tantrums where he would drop to the floor, cry, scream, and try to hit others. These tantrums occurred approximately three or four times a week, lasted about twenty minutes, and created havoc both at home and school. The family’s ABA therapist’s report indicated that Randy’s tantrums had decreased over the summer when his home programs began.

This year’s school program included similar instruction in the special education classroom. Since Randy liked things to be predictable and changes could cause him to have a meltdown, Cindy had developed a picture schedule that showed what he was doing throughout the school day. She hoped this would help him manage transitions better.

Cindy grimaced when she read Randy’s social history, which specified that his father was a prosecuting public attorney and his mother was a reference librarian at the university. They sounded intimidating, and Randy had yet to meet any of his IEP goals and was only displaying “emerging skills” in all academic areas. Cindy imagined they were pretty fed up with the school. Her advisor had drilled into her that parents were one’s best ally in the quest for success. Still, she worried about dealing with Randy’s parents. What if they turned out to be her worst enemy?

A few weeks into the school year, Randy’s parents request a meeting about his ongoing tantrums.

At the close of the third week into the school year, Cindy recalled her first innocent glimpse of Randy Mueller, who had smiled angelically as he explored the classroom. “Angel,” though, was hardly the word to describe his behavior! Randy was strong and had a right hook that had made Cindy see spots more than once.

Cindy and Tyrone jokingly compared the intense moaning that preceded Randy’s tantrums to the siren for a WWII-era bomb raid; everyone’s first instinct upon hearing the sound was to run for cover! Instead, they moved Randy to as safe an area of the room as possible. Then, depending on the severity of the tantrum and Janelle’s ability to handle the current needs of the other students, Cindy and Tyrone would either try to regain his attention through familiar words, gestures, and objects—or, simply let him have at it, rocking and wailing, until he finally quieted. His worst episodes usually occurred during transitions, but he also had regular problems in adaptive PE (APE).

See Randy’s classroom schedule below:

Randy connects with his ABA therapist, Patricia Edwards.

Randy’s in-school ABA therapy sessions seemed to help. Patricia, his ABA therapist had called in sick once, and Randy had two tantrums that day! It had taken all Cindy’s self-control not to cry when Janelle commented, “Mrs. Murray never let things go like that.”

Tyrone supported Randy in the first-grade classroom during his science and social studies block. Evidently, Randy’s parents had really pushed for him to attend at least one class with general education students, so off he went every afternoon, with Tyrone by his side. Tyrone’s undivided attention seemed to help Randy. So far, he’d had only one tantrum during that block. The general ed teacher, Lisa Winchester, had handled it surprisingly well. She immediately dimmed the lights and had all the students play a whisper game while Tyrone soothed Randy. Later, though, she told Cindy she had her doubts that Randy was ready to participate in a general ed setting.

Cindy sent out weekly email summaries to the parents of each of her students describing the week’s events. She tried to be positive and unemotional in describing Randy’s behavior, but she wasn’t surprised when his parents requested a meeting. She didn’t blame them for having doubts about the school’s efficacy with Randy; they were having success with the ABA therapy at home and to them it probably seemed that Randy’s overall picture should be improving. And Cindy was, after all, a relatively inexperienced teacher. But the email they sent was so over the top! Really, setting the agenda? Who did these parents think they were?

See the email from Randy’s father, Jim Mueller below:

Cindy pictured herself on the hot seat while Randy’s father, who was no doubt a skilled interrogator, fired question after question at her. “Come on,” she chided herself, “just be calm. If anything, I should be glad he’s that invested.” On the other hand, she thought, it won’t hurt to gather my evidence. She arranged a neat file of all the careful records she had been keeping on Randy’s behavior, as well as some samples of his work. Then she cleared off the kids’ round table, so that they would be able to talk there rather than in the more formal teacher’s desk area. After all, she thought, we’re in this together.

Cindy meets with Randy’s parents.

Cindy wanted to run the meeting on her terms, and so had decided to—not ignore the Muellers’ agenda—but to follow her own, incorporating their concerns in it. She was a little nervous, since neither Jim, her principal, nor Robin, the school psychiatrist, could attend the meeting. In fact, Jim had strongly suggested that she not meet with the parents without a “witness.” But Cindy didn’t want to think so antagonistically, so she went ahead as planned.

Randy’s parents are concerned about his progress.

Randy’s parents, Jim and Betsy Mueller, arrived at the exact time scheduled. They were professionally dressed, and Cindy regretted her more casual outfit choice. Did wearing khakis and a t-shirt make her look even younger than she was?

After greeting his parents, Cindy started off by stating her fondness for Randy and noting his positive developments so far at school. She showed them a few of his recent drawings and spoke of his interest in math. Then she described what seemed to be Randy’s developing friendship with his classmate Marty.

At this, Betsy raised her brows. “Really?”

Cindy described how the boys both enjoyed the tic-tac-toe manipulative on the school’s playground and had begun standing side-by-side there during recess, each flipping the X’s and O’s. Randy’s parents looked at one another and smiled.

“Now,” Cindy continued, hoping Randy’s parents didn’t notice the change in her voice as she tackled the difficult issues facing them. “I think Randy has the potential to show this kind of improvement throughout the school day, but first we need to get at the root of these tantrums.” Cindy handed them the log she had been keeping of Randy’s outbursts. “His ABA therapy with Patricia Edwards seems to be helping, but as you can see, the afternoons are our most difficult time of day.” Randy’s parents took a moment to read over the form.

See Randy’s Behavior Log below:

“So, I’m hoping to detect a pattern here,” Cindy said, “to reduce Randy’s triggers and the duration of his outbursts.”

“It seems fairly clear to me,” Betsy responded. “He doesn’t like noise and never has.”

Despite her preparations, Cindy gets flustered during the conference.

“Well, yes, of course,” Cindy said. “Many children with autism prefer order and routine, and that’s what we have here at school—and he still has tantrums.”

“Then why,” Betsy asked, “is he doing so much better at home?”

“That’s what I want to talk about,” Cindy said, reminding herself not to get defensive. “What are you doing there that we can duplicate here at school?”

Betsy explained how they had just started a technique using symbols to convey upcoming transitions, such as placing a toy car in Randy’s hand before a car ride, or a spoon to indicate a meal.

Cindy noted all of this with interest, glad to find some common ground. “That’s great,” she said. “We’re using a picture schedule here, but maybe the physical object is better!”

Betsy seemed to relax a bit. “It’s not like things are perfect at home, either,” she conceded. “It’s still really hard to get him to leave home, especially if he’s in the middle of watching a video or building his train tracks.”

“What happens then?” Cindy asked.

Betsy looked over at Jim, who remained silent. “Well, once a tantrum is on, it’s on. I suppose we’re kind of used to them at home.” She shrugged. “We just let him go. It’s harder when it happens in public.”

Jim finally spoke. “Last week we were getting him some sneakers, and he decided it was time to go. We still had to pay—there was a line, just a few minutes to wait—and he lost it. Laid down on the floor and cried at the top of his lungs. He sure has a voice!” He tried to smile, but immediately his face resumed its serious expression. “There was nothing we could do. We can’t take the Hummer with us, that’s for sure!”

“The what?” Cindy asked.

“The Hummer. It’s this old exercise bike we keep in the garage,” Betsy explained. “If we can get Randy to it before he really gets upset, he’ll sit in front of it and turn the pedals with his hands. The chain makes this humming noise, and it calms him right down.”

“Wow,” Cindy said. “That’s great. Do you think it’s the noise or the motion?”

His parents exchanged a quick look. Jim said, “We always thought it was the sound that did it.”

“Strange, isn’t it? How some noises can calm him while others send him over the edge?” Cindy said.

“That explains his tantrums here at school,” Jim answered. “His sensitivity to noise.”

“But it’s very hard,” Betsy said, ignoring her husband’s comment. “We want to have a positive family life. Of course we want to stop his tantrums as much as we can—get him back to the state in which we can relate to him as soon as possible.”

“Of course,” Cindy said. “We use time-outs here to help students regain control. Do you at home?”

“Yes,” Betsy said, “and we try to be consistent, but sometimes it seems like more of a struggle than it’s worth to get him to take the time-out.”

“But he needs to learn a kind of responsibility for his tantrums,” Cindy said.”

Randy’s parents nodded. “I want our IEP meeting moved up,” Jim added. “His plan needs to reflect more behavioral goals; he can’t make academic progress if he’s having tantrums.”

“And I want our home ABA therapist in on this,” Betsy added. “Can she talk with Patricia?”

“Certainly,” Cindy said, writing down Patricia’s extension. “I’ll make sure to follow-up on that conversation. And I’ll email you his behavioral log as a template, if you want to track things at home. Anything else?”

“Keep up your weekly emails,” Jim said. “They’re quite helpful.”

Cindy blushed a bit at the compliment. Maybe Randy’s parents weren’t so bad.

A week later, Randy makes a surprising development.

The following week passed quickly. Cindy wasn’t able ponder Randy’s situation as much as she would have liked. She had alerted Patricia to the fact that Randy’s at-home therapist would be calling, and she had told Tyrone about some of the techniques Randy’s parents were using. Otherwise, she also found herself wishing the IEP meeting could be moved forward! At least, she thought, I now know that his parents are semi-onboard with me, and I’ve got a little more insight into Randy.

When she went over the meeting results with her aides, Tyrone pointed out Randy’s interest in Mister Ticker, the old egg timer they used to measure time-outs. Tyrone had removed the back and stuffed it with tissue to mute the noise it made. No matter whether it was his time-out or not, Randy fixated on the timer whenever it was set. Tyrone suggested that they bring Mister Ticker to APE in an attempt to head off what was becoming his routine tantrum during this time.

Cindy and Tyrone walked the students down to the gym. Cindy sat down in a corner, where she could observe the children discreetly. While she hated to lose a planning period, she thought she might be able to gain some insight by watching Randy in what was clearly a difficult setting for him.

Tyrone placed Mister Ticker on the mats in the corner of the gym, while Eric, the APE teacher, arranged students in two lines and had the children bounce the ball to each other. The noise reverberated in the gym as the children threw the balls and chased after them. Just after his partner bounced a ball past him, Randy dropped to the floor, wrapped his arms around his head, and began the wailing that typically signaled the start of a meltdown. Tyrone quickly lifted Randy into the mat area and eased him safely down before Randy had time to begin a full-fledged flailing episode. Cindy watched uneasily while Randy rocked and wailed.

But then Randy spied the timer. He stopped crying, edged over to it, and turned the knob. Tyrone and Cindy looked at one another with wide eyes as Randy rocked quietly, cradling the timer until it chimed the three-minute limit. Tyrone sat next to Randy, and Cindy could see his lips moving as he spoke.

So this must be how he responded to the Hummer at home, Cindy realized. It really was remarkable! She had never before seen Randy display such control and independence. Could she teach Randy to get Mister Ticker when he was starting to get upset? And would it work consistently for him?

At the end of the day, she sat down to write her weekly email to each of her student’s families. She was so pleased with Randy; she couldn’t wait to share what had happened with his parents. She quickly composed a note, pressed “send,” and then got to work on her other student summaries.

When her computer pinged to notify her of incoming mail, she was excited to see a note from Jim Mueller. She bet he’d be pretty pleased by the news.

See Jim’s email below:

The video was powerful, to say the least. Shed never seen or read anything before that provided such a clear window into what it was like to be autistic. She watched it again, then Googled Amandas name and read through some responses to her CNN appearance.

See an observations on educating children with autism below:

Retrieved from Anderson Cooper 360 Blog 2/22/07.

Cindy felt sick to her stomach. She—and everyone, really—was pushing so hard to get Randy to fit in. She’d always imagined herself as a student advocate and ally. Now she wasn’t so sure.