I’m from a small town in rural Kansas with no stoplights and the nearest Walmart is 30 minutes away. My father was a rancher with 200 head of cattle and my mom was a teacher at the nearby—and only—school.
Growing up there offered tremendous benefits for me, as I was in every club and sport, more out of necessity than talent! But the best part was having the chance to grow, develop, and harness skills I likely wouldn’t have known in a larger district.
Then Along Came Tommy…
It was in the 1990s that my brother Tommy was born. We were thrilled to have a boy in the family, but Tommy wasn’t quite like the other kids. He wasn’t able to walk until he was 2 years old and had still not said a word. He was taken in to be evaluated at the regional hospital and was discovered to be profoundly deaf. In some ways, it was a relief to know what was going on, but there were other challenges living in rural Kansas.
There were no other deaf children in our county, let alone our town. My parents scoured to find anyone who knew sign language or was deaf in our region. Ultimately, one elderly woman who was deaf agreed to meet my parents. She tutored my parents in sign, but it wasn’t enough. My folks ended up driving several hours each week to have sign language lessons in the nearest big city.
As my brother prepared for preschool and kindergarten, the teachers worked so hard to be equipped to adequately meet Tommy’s needs. They bought all of the American Sign Language (ASL) books they could find, prepared flashcards and visual supports for where their signing skills couldn’t meet Tommy's needs, and practiced their own language development meticulously.
The Tough Decision
Teachers tracked their data, but Tommy wasn’t making progress in his communication and was falling behind in academic and life skills. At school, he also struggled behaviorally with screaming, running away, and incessantly touching people’s hair or poking their stomachs, legs, and arms.
In order to have equal access to the level and rigor of support that Tommy needed, my parents made the incredibly difficult decision to have him transferred to Kansas School for the Deaf (KSD)—2 hours away from our farmstead—to have him fully immersed in the language and, hopefully, close his learning gaps.
This type of decision is unique to rural families. We love our communities, but when faced with something requiring specialization not typical in our setting, we are oftentimes forced to make long commutes to get the care needed for our loved ones.
More than Deafness
After a year at the state deaf school, the teachers informed my parents that Tommy wasn’t typical even as a deaf student. They believed that he had something called autism. He was evaluated at BoysTown and diagnosed within the year. Having comorbid disabilities made the resource inequity feel tenfold. Not only was our family struggling with learning deaf culture and sign language, but now we were also tasked with learning about autism—which at the time was relatively unheard of aside from the movie “Rain Man.”
Our world was shaken again. Our rural community wrapped around us but had no more frame of reference than we did as to what all of this meant. None of us knew.
Inspiration Out of Necessity
This is the setting that led me to become a teacher. While initially starting out as an elementary teacher after watching my brother’s journey, I decided to teach the very type of students that I’d grown up with. I became an autism teacher.
I thought I was well prepared to have that lived experience, but it became apparent that autism isn’t “one size fits all.” Sure, there were some commonalities for the self-contained settings that I worked in—the focus on teaching communication, functional academics, social skills, and independent living tasks—but I found that I was not well equipped.
Many of the students I supported were working on pre-academic skills. We had to focus on school readiness tasks such as sitting at a group table for 5 minutes without leaving, giving back a reinforcing item without issue, or following a 1-step direction.
I couldn’t get to any other teaching before we tackled school readiness, but I didn’t have any training on how to work on that type of skill. I had my master’s degree, and I’ve lived with my brother, but how was I supposed to figure out teaching minute skills?
Taking Matters Into My Own Hands
One day a coworker mentioned the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) to me. I began to research the concepts extensively, attended webinars and conferences on my own time, and made as many materials as I could to support the effort.
ABA helps teachers recognize triggers for behavior and things we can do to increase or decrease the type of behavior we want to see through reinforcement. This was exactly what I needed and, though I had never heard of it growing up or in college, I now began a trial-by-fire immersion in the practice. I also discovered that ABA is not just for autism—its tenets are just good teaching practices that can be applied to any student working to gain skills.
Amazingly, I started to see real changes in my students. We were getting to actually teach! I wasn’t spending all my time redirecting to come back to the table or “fighting” to get back an iPad.
The bad news was that I was exhausted. The amount of time that I devoted to (a) learning how to implement and train my staff on ABA and (b) finding, creating, laminating, and storing materials left me struggling to find time and energy to keep up with my progress monitoring, lesson planning, and evaluation programming. Let alone have a lunch or planning time!
To complicate matters, my brother had also recently started in a group home and workshop near me in Kansas City where there was a larger deaf community. My parents still lived out on the farm, so I felt compelled to see him regularly and make sure he was taken care of.
There simply weren’t enough hours in the day.
In the past several years as I became a guardian for my brother Tommy, I have continued to advocate for him and others like him to have the best quality of life possible. Taking on this type of role also led me to find the company STAGES® Learning.
I’d used the Stages Learning Language Builder Cards when I was working with my students on functional academics and communication skills, but I discovered that they now had a curriculum called the ARIS® Academic Readiness Intervention System that pulled everything together and provided all of the materials to actually run the curriculum.
My jaw dropped. Where was this for me years ago when I had to beg my husband to help me cut out lamination all night!? Not only does ARIS give teachers enough materials to help us get back our weekends, but they also have lesson plans that spell out how to do that intensive ABA teaching but with a generalization and inclusion emphasis on each lesson. This would have allowed me to learn the principles of ABA through practice and repetition rather than by watching the bazillion webinars that I spent my evenings on. Also, it has IEP goals written, data sheets included, and a behavior management system built in.
Needless to say, it was love at first sight! With my new role as a guardian for my brother, I wanted to devote my time and energy to him and my family. Learning about ARIS gave me the hope and inspiration that I could help save other teachers the effort that I went through and give teachers more meaningful time to work on what matters rather than making data sheets and Pinteresting all night.
Equity Regardless of Zip Code
I jumped at the chance to join the Stages Learning team where I now have the pleasure of supporting special education teachers, preschool teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and whole school teams in helping students who are working on school readiness skills, communication, play skills, or functional academics.
What is most exciting about ARIS in my eyes is that yes, while it was designed for students with autism, school teams have seen success in using these tools in preschool settings, for English Language Learners, or even as part of their MTSS process for early intervention. Having all the resources available can be a game changer for so many of our teachers serving students who face an opportunity or achievement gap.
Moreover, Stages Learning has allowed me to pursue my personal goal of helping all students learn regardless of their zip code. Especially in the last several years, it has become very apparent that our students across the county have not had the same type of access to education. For our rural students, who were already lacking access to resources for specialized instruction, the equity gap has widened. We have the tools to help!
If you have teachers who have the passion, but not the specialized training or if you have teachers burnt out from attempting to find and create their own materials all the time, I’d love to see if ARIS and Stages Learning can help. Please contact me anytime to learn more about what we can offer to help and to share our mutual love of small-town America.
We hope you enjoyed the information in this article. Stages Learning also offers free downloadable resources to support teaching and learning with individuals with autism. Start with our free Picture Noun Cards and see our collection of other downloadable resources here!