Preschool to be part of autism research

The preschool at Chautauqua Elementary School could soon be better equipped to educate young students with autism, after the school was selected as a pilot site to use a research-based autism education curriculum.

Vashon is one of 30 sites in Washington and Oregon that will implement the curriculum as part of a study by Portland State University.

The research project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, will pay for Vashon preschool teachers and specialists to receive training this summer at Portland State, for curriculum coaches to visit the school regularly and for Chautauqua to receive all curriculum materials, worth several thousand dollars, free.

Parents will be included in the project as well, as the curriculum encourages family participation.

At least three autistic students attend Chautauqua’s preschool, qualifying the school for the study, said Cathy Lambert, Vashon Island School District’s student services director. Vashon’s preschool — which serves special needs students alongside their regularly developing peers — was chosen randomly from a pool of qualified schools to implement the new curriculum, aimed at students ages 3 to 8, in the fall.

The autism curriculum — Comprehensive Autism Program Using Strategies for Teaching Based on Autism Research, or CAPSTAR — is designed to teach young autistic students academic and life skills, better preparing them to enter the general classroom, said Ruth Falco, co-principal investigator of Portland State’s CAPSTAR project.

“Autism is a lifelong disability that affects the ability to communicate and engage in social interaction,” Falco said.

CAPSTAR could help autistic students do both, she said.

One in 150 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Office of Special Education Programs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CAPSTAR helps autistic students interact with others and their surroundings by engaging them in step-by-step instruction on everything from identifying objects and putting on a backpack to expressing desires and saying goodbye.

“Children learn step by step,” Falco said. “Both life and academic skills — they’re learning language; they’re learning social skills; they’re learning to communicate, and they’re learning those basic preacademic skills that young children learn prior to kindergarten.”

Researchers hope that autistic students will benefit from CAPSTAR instruction, achieving higher success in communication, comprehension, preacademic skills, social skills and behavior than they may have if they were not instructed using the method.

The structured CAPSTAR curriculum is based on the well-researched Applied Behavior Analysis model, the only treatment for autism approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Applied Behavior Analysis encourages appropriate skills and behaviors by reinforcing desirable behaviors with social or tangible rewards, such as a high-five or a Cheerio. Thousands of studies have proven ABA’s efficacy.

The current CAPSTAR study, which Vashon will be a part of this fall, hopes to prove CAPSTAR’s effectiveness as well.

“We’re looking to see whether the model and the curriculum make a difference in how young children learn,” Falco said. “We hope that it will help them learn the skills that they need when they enter kindergarten or first grade.”

Vashon Island School District’s Lambert said she feels lucky the district was chosen to implement CAPSTAR at its preschool.

“This is a curriculum to help kids gain (communication and social skills) faster,” she said. “We are excited about it. ... It’s really a well-supported program.”

The CAPSTAR announcement came at a critical time for the preschool; one of its teachers was issued a pink slip last month, and the program appeared to be headed for a schedule reduction from four days a week to two or three. But Lambert and Superintendent Michael Soltman said they are optimistic that the school district’s recent aggressive fundraising campaign has raised enough money to restore the preschool to its normal schedule.

Soltman said he, too, is looking forward to seeing CAPSTAR take off at the district’s preschool.

“Anything we can do to help these kids, and the earlier we can get a good intervention in place, I think it’s going to benefit them all the way through their education,” he said. “I’m glad we’re able to take advantage of this program.”

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