The ASD Nest Middle/High School Model for Inclusive Education

This fall in New York City, over 1,000 students with ASD will be educated in fully inclusive classrooms in public schools all across the city. They will be learning and brainstorming and problem-solving alongside more than 3,500 of their general education peers. Of these thousand students, 300 are middle and high school students on the autism spectrum.

These students are part of the New York City Department of Education’s ASD Nest program. Launched in 2003 at one school in Brooklyn, The ASD Nest program is now in 35 public schools across the five boroughs of New York City. The program was developed by researchers, including Dr. Shirley Cohen of Hunter College and Dorothy Siegel of NYU, and district leaders, led by then Superintendent Carmen Fariña. It was created in response to the growing need for effective school support for the growing population of students with ASD who are able to do grade-level work (Koenig, Feldman, Siegel, Cohen, & Bleiweiss, 2014). The program continues to be supported by New York University’s ASD Nest Support Project, under the Principal Investigator, Dr. Kristie Patten Koenig and Project Director Dorothy Siegel. Without appropriate supports, these students struggle in typical school environments, due in part to misunderstood behavioral differences, social challenges, and unique academic needs (Sansosti & Sansosti, 2013).

ASD Nest program schools aim to correct this problem. For teachers and therapists working in ASD Nest schools, this process begins by recognizing that students with ASD have ways of thinking about and responding to the world around them that are different than others. Their job is then to understand how these differences in thinking impact students, and then to support them when those differences become challenges.

To accomplish this, every ASD Nest school employs distinct practices that stem from three core elements of the ASD Nest model. Below are ten of the practices:

Structural & Collaborative Elements

  1. Reduced class sizes: Nest classes have fewer students than typical inclusion classrooms to create environments in which students with ASD are comfortable
  2. Training & professional development: All staff receive graduate-level pre-service training in autism and benefit from ongoing in-service workshops to maintain knowledge of promising practices in the field
  3. Interdisciplinary team meetings: Teachers and related service providers collaborate weekly to discuss student challenges and develop cohesive support plans
  4. Home-school collaboration: Staff communicate regularly with families about school events and to share successful strategies

Instructional Elements

  1. Co-taught classrooms: A special educator and general educator team-teach every Nest class, allowing for maximal differentiation to support diverse learners
  2. Class-wide practices: Teachers provide whole-class visual supports, priming, and organizational strategies for executive functioning weaknesses
  3. Therapeutic supports: Speech therapists deliver a specialized social-therapeutic intervention and occupational therapists assist in organizing calming classroom environments, and social and sensory supports are woven throughout the students’ school day
  4. A positive behavior approach: Nest schools utilize school- and class-wide positive behavior supports, offering clear behavioral expectations and reinforcing expected behavior

Philosophical Elements

  1. Focus on strengths: Nest teams incorporate students’ special interests and leverage students’ strengths to alleviate their challenges
  2. Commitment to true inclusion: Students with ASD are recognized as full contributing members to their class and school communities

These elements together create learning environments where students on the autism spectrum are understood, respected, and supported.

Changing Needs in Adolescence

The ASD Nest program began as an elementary school model. This model has been described in great detail in The ASD Nest Model: A Framework for Inclusive Education for Higher Functioning Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders (Cohen & Hough, 2013). As students in the ASD Nest program aged up, the program began to enter middle schools across New York City. This is in line with a growing trend in this country: an increasing number of students with ASD in inclusive classrooms (USDOE, 2010).

Secondary students with ASD continue to require supports to be successful in their classes, get along with their peers, and smoothly navigate through each school day (Fleury et al, 2014). And while many of the core supports in middle and high school can remain the same from elementary school, the ASD Nest program identified a need to update the model for secondary schools. There are significant scheduling differences between elementary and middle/high school, and the social and academic needs of students with ASD change as they become adolescents. Both these structural and developmental differences change the way students in middle and high school get support. No longer is one pair of teachers responsible for an individual student all day; instead a student interacts with up to 12 adults across a school day. A student cubby can house and organize all of a fifth-graders materials; in middle school, students need to navigate lockers, textbooks, and desks in five different classrooms.

The Middle School/High School Nest Essentials

Over three years, a dedicated group of middle and high school teachers from ASD Nest schools worked with Aaron Lanou, the Nest’s Director of Professional Development to develop the guiding document for Nest middle and high schools. Built on the same core elements—Structural & Collaborative, Instructional, and Philosophical—described above, the Middle School/High School Nest Essentials (Lanou, 2015) define the model’s “instructional elements,” specially designed for secondary teachers.

The Nest Essentials are broken down into the following categories, intended for all teachers working with this population in a given school, to create a coordinated system of support across classes and teaching teams. While being written for use in ASD Nest schools, these “essentials” can be incorporated into any inclusive secondary classroom.

 

Organization of the Classroom Environment – The starting point for classroom strategies is the room itself. Because students with ASD can become distracted or overwhelmed by their environment, classrooms need to be arranged and organized in such a way as to avoid visual and auditory distractions (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014). Generally, classrooms should be neat and organized, without visible clutter that could serve as a visual distraction. Adjustments should be made to address students’ sensory needs, such as using alternative lighting. Overhead fluorescent lighting can be experienced as distracting or even painful; standing lamps or natural light are good alternatives.

 

Classroom Structures & Routines – Because students with ASD benefit from structure and predictability, teachers need to create and teach common classroom routines (Myles & Simpson, 2001). For example, entering and exiting routines should be established and directly taught to students. In addition, an agenda and homework area should be designated and displayed in the same location every class session for easy reference. All routines need to be explicitly taught, practiced, and reinforced throughout the school year, and a visual poster should be displayed as continual reference.

 

Self-Regulation Routine – Students with ASD can become overwhelmed and struggle to regulate their behavior in ways expected of students in inclusive classrooms. Therefore, classrooms should have a break routine for allowing students to remove themselves from a stressful situation (Myles, & Southwick, 2005). The break area, located either in a designated area of the classroom or a separate nearby room, is not a time-out area. Rather it is a place for students to elect to go to calm themselves and ready themselves to return to instruction. Break areas should be quiet, comfortable and can contain calming books and activities. Again, the break routine should be taught and practiced to help students develop self-regulation.

 

Social Supports – Because students with ASD may misunderstand aspects of social relationships and social expectations, classroom structures, instruction, and activities should be planned to support students’ social challenges. Before beginning group work, for example, every group member’s role should be defined and explained concretely. Teachers can use roles—such as recorder, researcher, and reporter—to clarify expectations. Support should also be given during class activities that may tap in to social challenges, such as finding a partner and accepting feedback from peers.

 

Instructional Strategies – Classroom instruction needs to be delivered to match the learning style of students on the autism spectrum. Their academic performance can be impacted by social challenges and impairments in executive functioning (Whitcomb, 2015). Accordingly, supports should be created to make the curriculum accessible. Copying from the board should be limited, and note-taking supports, such as graphic organizers and guided notes, should be provided. Complex tasks need to be broken down into clear sub-steps, and a visual of the steps should be provided. Finally, visual timers can be used to show how long activities last and to prepare students for transitions.

 

The benefit of implementing practices like those described is that they support not only students with ASD, but all students in inclusive environments.

Putting it All Together

The Nest Essentials classroom strategies are a core feature of the ASD Nest Middle/High School Model, but they are only a piece of the overall support structure. The ten practices described earlier are all necessary to create a supportive learning environment, and the process must begin with a deep desire to see inclusion as a “way of doing business in schools” (Kluth, 2013, p. 15). For a school or district to effectively implement this kind integrated system of supports, logistical and attitudinal buy-in is necessary from all stakeholders:

 

  • As school leaders, administrators need to be knowledgeable about inclusion of students with special needs, and commit to the training and support for their staff to support this population.
  • Teachers and therapists working with adolescents with ASD need to be flexible, creative, and collaborative, and commit to understanding student differences.
  • Families, both of those of the students on the autism spectrum and of the general education population, need to understand the model and its benefits.

Laying the Groundwork for Future Success

This fall, three particularly incredible students are beginning their freshman year of college. Without the ASD Nest program, there is a strong chance these students would never have made it to this milestone. These three young men were three of the first students in the ASD Nest pilot in 2003. Through the academic and social strategies provided, and the structural commitment to supporting the adults who worked with them, these students thrived. They developed the skills and competence to prepare them for successful college careers and meaningful and fulfilling adult lives.

School systems around the country—and the world—can create supportive school environments for adolescent students on the autism spectrum. By providing classroom supports within a system of structural supports, schools can help students with ASD can achieve their full human potential.

 

Aaron Lanou, MSEd, is Director of Professional Development at the ASD Nest Support Project at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. For further information about the ASD Nest program please visit http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/asdnest or contact us at asdnest.web@nyu.edu.

References

Bleiweiss, J., Hough, L, & Cohen, S. (2013). Everyday Classroom Strategies and Practices for Supporting Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Cohen, S. & Hough, L. (Eds.). (2013). The ASD Nest Program. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Fleury, V.P., Hedges, S., Hume, K., Browder, D.M., Thompson, J.L., Fallin, K., El Zein, F., Reutebuch, C.K., & Vaughn, S. (2014). Addressing the Academic Needs of Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder in Secondary Education. Remedial and Special Education, 35(2), 68-79.

Fisher, A.V., Godwin, K.E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: when too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362–1370.

Kluth, P. (2013). “Don’t We Already Do Inclusion?”: 100 Ideas for Improving Inclusive Schools. Cambridge, Wisconsin: CBR Press.

Koenig, K.P., Feldman, J.M., Siegel, D., Cohen, S., & Bleiweiss, J. (2014). Issues in Implementing a Comprehensive Intervention for Public School Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 42, 248–263.

Lanou, A. (2015). Nest Essentials: The ASD Nest Middle/High School Model. Manuscript in preparation.

Myles, B. S., & Simpson, R. L. (2001). Effective practices for students with Asperger syndrome. Focus on Exceptional Children, 34(3), 1–14.

Myles, B. S., & Southwick, J. (2005). Asperger Syndrome and difficult moments: Practical solutions for tantrums, rage, and meltdowns (expanded and revised ed.). Shawnee Mission KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Picci, G., & Scherf, K. S. (2015). A Two-Hit Model of Autism: Adolescence as the Second Hit. Clinical Psychological Science, 3(3), 349-371.

Sansosti, J.M. & Sansosti, F.J. (2012). Inclusion for students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders: Definitions and decision making. Psychology in the Schools, 49(10), 917-931.

Whitcomb M.W. (2015). Common Core and the Uncommon Learner: How Autism Affects Acquisition of Common Core State Standards. Contemporary School Psychology, 19(2), 66-76.

  1. S. Department of Education. (2010). Twenty-ninth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/osep/2007/parts-b-c/index.html

One Response

  1. Marie says:

    I’m looking for a school with technology and music program for for highly function autistic son in a middle public school with a nest program.

Have a Comment?