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New York program fulfills promise of inclusive education

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Deborah Rudacille
30 May 2011

T. Brolin/TalismanPHOTO

Team effort: Typically developing children can help keep their peers with autism focused on classroom tasks, a New York City-based program has found. Anthony Almonte, aged 6 here, is one of the program's success stories.

An innovative academic program in New York City public schools is successfully educating children with high-functioning autism alongside their unaffected peers.

The ASD Nest program — so called because it seeks to create a nurturing environment for children with autism spectrum disorders — is embedded in 19 elementary schools and 2 middle schools throughout New York City. Another middle school and a high school are scheduled to open in the fall.

"Nest is probably the most effective inclusion program I have ever seen," says Catherine Lord, director of the Autism & Communication Disorders Center at the University of Michigan.

Between 1991 and 2001, the nationwide percentage of children who spent a substantial part of their day in mainstream classrooms tripled. However, in most cases, this is inclusion in name only, says Brenda Smith Myles, consultant for the Ziggurat Group, a Texas-based assessment and intervention program for children with autism. "I call it proximity rather than inclusion," says Myles.

For an inclusion program to work, it needs teachers trained to understand the special needs of children with autism, support from occupational and speech therapists, and planning time to discuss strategies for individual students, she says. Most publicly funded programs don't provide any of these elements, she says.

The Nest program is unique in that all of those key features are built in. Teachers take autism-related courses before entering the program and, along with speech and occupational therapists, hold weekly case conferences about each child.

Replicating the Nest approach nationwide would greatly improve the employment outlook for people with autism, says Myles. "We've lost a generation of kids, as shown by the 12 percent employment rate of adults with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism," she says. "Nest is one of the few programs to make sure that these kids succeed."

Nest's results speak for themselves.

More than 400 children with autism are registered in the program in kindergarten through 8th grade, with three boys in 12th grade at the Channel View School for Research in Queens, New York.

Last year, 80 of the students in grades 3 through 7 did as well or slightly better than their typically developing peers on a standardized test for English and significantly higher on one for math. One of the three high school seniors is a National Merit Scholar.

Among the first five children who went through the program from kindergarten through grade 8, three have been accepted into New York City's 'specialized' high schools, an indicator of high academic achievement.

"It has saved the educational futures of many children [with autism]," says Shirley Cohen, professor of education at Hunter College of the City University of New York, who helped create the program in 2002.

Strategic planning:

At a visit in April to Public School 112 in East Harlem, where a Nest program was launched in 2005, student artwork and projects lined quiet, orderly classrooms and colorful hallways.

The Nest curriculum is the same as in other city schools, but teaching strategies and classroom environment are both specialized for the needs of children with autism.

For example, an 'inquiry-based learning' model allows the children to explore topics of interest by asking questions and researching the answers. This approach lets students take ownership of their learning, says Eileen Reiter, principal of P.S. 112. "We try to build on their strengths."

Teachers prime children for new activities or situations and post daily class schedules, with activity cards moved into a separate column once completed. Each child with autism has an individual folder that lists, in words and images, his or her personal schedule for the day, including sessions with speech and occupational therapists.

Lord says she is impressed with the program's high expectations for the children with autism both academically and socially — and with how the approach benefits the typical children in the classrooms.

brain scan chromosome 22
Star pupils: Student artwork and projects are displayed gallery-style at P.S. 112 in East Harlem.

For example, teachers extensively use visual aids to supplement verbal directions — such as a poster that illustrates the 'Magic 5' steps for being a good listener: Sit like a pretzel, eyes on speaker, ears listening, hands in lap and quiet mouth.

"Our children need very concrete instruction," says Reiter, whose school will soon graduate its first Nest class of 5th graders. The children will attend newly created middle school programs in the fall.

Teachers also dim lights and hide distracting toys and books to minimize sensory overload, displaying only the materials needed for each lesson.

Together, these practices help manage the anxiety children with autism experience in new situations, says Cohen.

Children in the program have frequent opportunities to make choices throughout the school day, from deciding whether they want to use markers or crayons to deciding which story they'd like to listen to. Choice helps keep the children engaged in tasks, and minimizes negative behavior, says Reiter.

Each classroom also includes a 'quiet corner,' set off from the rest of the classroom and stocked with a bean bag chair, squeeze balls and headphones. A poster in each corner lists things a child can do when he or she is stressed: Take a break, count to 20, breathe in and out or push against the wall. Children are encouraged to take a break when they need one.

"We teach them to self-regulate," says Reiter.

Positive support:

The Nest program is the brainchild of Cohen and Dorothy Siegel, the self-described "strongest advocate for special ed in New York City." Siegel has a grown son with autism. Although she was able to find a slot for him in a private school, she was concerned about other children with autism who have limited options.

In 2002, she and Cohen launched a series of workshops on the need for special programs for children with autism who were not being well served by the city. The workshops led to a pilot program at P.S. 32 in Brooklyn in 2003.

The core of the program is inclusion: Each kindergarten class of 12 and elementary class of 16 includes 4 children with autism. "Every effort is made to treat them exactly the same as the other kids," says Reiter.

Two teachers — one certified in early childhood special education and one in early childhood education — work in each classroom. This allows a degree of individual attention uncommon in public school classrooms, which can include as many as 25 students with only one teacher.

The success of the program mainly relies on the well-trained teaching staff, says Siegel, many of them graduates of the Hunter College teaching program that Cohen has headed for many years.

Teachers take two courses — one on autism and one on behavioral therapy — prior to working at a Nest school and, once in the school, a course on the social development intervention used in Nest schools. They also attend regular in-service classes and workshops.

Speech therapists, occupational therapists and social workers are also part of each Nest team. All team members are trained in positive behavioral support, a strategy that first identifies triggers for problem behavior, then teaches more appropriate behaviors.

The social development curriculum, in which students are taught different ways to navigate social interaction through direct instruction and role-playing, benefits not just the children with autism but all of the students in the school, Siegel says.

"The goal is to make the six-and-a-half hour school day a therapeutic experience for all the children in the school, not just the kids with autism," she says. "Those from a disadvantaged background benefit tremendously, but privileged parents want their kids here too."

Parents enthusiastically endorse the program. "My son is doing fantastic here," says Lisa Arezzi, mother of a 6-year-old boy with autism. "He's thriving."

Prior to coming to P.S. 112, her son, who is now in 1st grade, attended a private preschool where he wasn't playing with other children. After two years in the Nest program, she says, "his eye contact is better and his confidence has improved."

Part of that improvement may be due to the peer-mediated instruction that is also part of the program. "You look for natural affinities between typical kids and kids on the spectrum and you build on those affinities," Cohen says. "Sit them next to one another at the table and let the typical kids help the kids with autism."

Though the program is growing — Siegel expects enrollment to reach 1,000 by 2015, expanding by about 100 children per year — she cautions that too rapid a scale-up would be unwise.

It takes time to train teachers, to allow the two teachers in each classroom to forge good working partnerships, and to create schedules that permit collaboration, she notes. "If you replicate too fast, it doesn't work."


Name: Shree Vaidya
31 May 2011 - 10:46AM

I appreciate your work. Thank you.

Name: Stressed Nest Mom
7 June 2011 - 12:01PM

In theory, the program is very good, and it's probably one of the best public school programs for children who have mild spectrum disorders. However, the program is not totally consistent throughout the NYC school system, and parents in some of the schools have to do a lot of advocating for their kids. Also, the class size is more like 21 to 23 students per class in the upper elementary school classes (4th and 5th grades.) There are talks to try to make the class size the same as the CTT classes (25 kids with 2 teachers), so that we won't be considered more favored than the other inclusion classes.

It was interesting to see that the class described in the article "Teachers also dim lights and hide distracting toys and books to minimize sensory overload, displaying only the materials needed for each lesson". In my son's class, there is information posted on every inch of the classroom, which is very distracting to my son. I plan to work with next year's teacher to see if we can eliminate some of these sensory distractions.

Name: Danielle Molina
19 September 2013 - 10:20PM

My child is 8 years old PDD/NOS and is enrolled in the P.S. 68 Bronx nest program and I am sorry to say that your vision has no home in this school. My child has been picked on since the first grade by non nest children who quickly pick up on who is different. The therapists are the ONLY glimmer of hope provided by this school as the teachers generally have no idea what goes on, I promise you this is true and my boss can tell you how many times i have needed to take to go to the school and meet with the assistant principal, counselors, teachers and any one who I pray will just keep an eye on my child and keep her safe as she has been punched in the head, had her lunch taken from her for 2 months without any one noticing she has been pushed regularly had her pencils ripped from her hand so someone can use her eraser and now that she is in the third grade the girls laugh at her and talk about her behind her back. This is NO exaggeration I assure you it is just truly heart breaking for me to hear her stories about her day at school and feel crippled knowing that no one cares, particularly the absently landlord principal. I have been offered no solutions no offer to switch classes even though I begged argued and stomped my feet about it. My child gets so nervous about school that she has been throwing up before school and this is just not right! I am just so sick of know one caring and people trying to shut me up because I want my child to be safe, how can she evolve socially when all we have established at this point is that grown ups don't listen and the kids who are not in social club are mean? I get that stuff happens I truly do but how many times can I ask what the point of having her in this program is if no one intervenes or monitors the interactions between the nesters and non nesters which is clearly the case as they never know what your talking about when you ask them about any type of altercation. I am so heart broken over this I have been putting more and more consideration in to home school as I am all out of ideas and options. I hope someone who can help reads this and cares. Sincerely, Danielle Molina

Name: Anonymous
29 August 2014 - 7:49AM

Dear Danielle Molina,
It sounds like your child is being bullied. STEM or not, regardless of her disability, she has rights under NY State law not to be bullied. I would personally hire a lawyer. Having consistent teasing, physical abuse and taunting that lasts a while is considered bullying. Show up with a lawyer at the school and they will look at you differently. This is outrageous the administration is letting this happening. There are bullying laws in NY State. Look them up.
I am a parent and a special education teacher in NY public school. feel free to contact me at hsadan@schools.nyc.gov
Do not give up and good luck!

Name: Lee
7 October 2014 - 8:09AM

Is this still happening?

Name: Dorothy Siegel
7 June 2011 - 6:42PM

Dear Stressed Nest mom,

I am the project director for the ASD Nest Project at NYU, which facilitates development, replication and support for the Nest program for the Dept of Ed. One of the things we try to do is to maintain consistency across the program and its 100+ classrooms. We do that, in part, by requiring all teachers and therapists working in the program to take two graduate courses on autism and behavior theory at Hunter prior to starting to work in the program, and one course on social development intervention after the school year begins. Consultants from NYU and Hunter then work in the schools directly with teachers and therapists to support their work, suggest Nest strategies and help staff understand how to work with these children.

One of the basic strategies we use is making the Nest classroom a calm, predictable, relatively non-distracting environment that is not overstimulating. Over the course of the year, teachers put more materials up on the walls; this strategy may look different in older grades. If your child is in a younger grade, his classroom should not have every inch of the classroom walls covered with information. Even if he is not in a younger grade, if there are things up on the walls that distract your son, the teachers should reduce those distractions, and/or give your son a less distracting personal space in which to work. This strategy is constrained somewhat by the need to maintain the classroom as an appropriate setting for GENERAL ED children, as well as the children with ASD, for whom environmental modifications are made.

Grades 1 - 3 in the Nest have a cap of 12 typically developing children and 4 children with ASD. Occasionally, typical child #13 or #14 may be added when a grade in one of the schools has a number of children that does not divide up neatly, and there are children "left over" after the non-ASD classes in that grade reach their maximum. Also occasionally, a fifth ASD child may be added in grade 2 or 3.

Grades 6 - 12 are capped at 5 children with ASD and 20 typically developing children. Again, occasionally, there has been an "extra" child in one of these classes, due to local circumstances.

Grades 4-5 class sizes are less clear. For a variety of reasons, we feel that there should be between12 and 20 typically developing children in these Nest classrooms. Again, depending on local circumstances, we recommend that grade 4 and 5 Nest classes have 14 to 16 typically developing children, along with 4 or 5 children with ASD, for a total of 18 to 21 students in these grades.

It would be a mistake ifthe Dept of Ed were to increase the class size to 25 children in elementary school. Children with ASD are not "more favored" than the special ed children in CCT classes. They are children who, by definition, CAN NOT MANAGE in a "regular" CCT class, in part because of the larger number of children in the class!

Before the Nest program was developed, higher functioning children with autism were either 1) placed in a District 75 class, where they were isolated from their community and their typically developing peers, and not provided with a rigorous academic curriculum; 2) placed in a self-contained class in a community school where they were often victimized by other children in the class and/or taught at an inappropriate academic level; or 3) placed in a general ed or CTT class where they required the assistance of a 1:1 paraprofessional to "keep them out of trouble." In none of these settings were the very specific needs of children with autism consistently and successfully addressed and the children taught how to self-regulate and cope.

I urge you to make your concerns known to your principal. If the situation doesn't improve next fall, please contact me. I'd be happy to chat with you to see how to remedy the situation.

dorothy Siegel

Name: fabiola goldstein
10 June 2011 - 9:14AM

there is any ASD nest elementary school in queens

Name: Katy
10 September 2012 - 3:29PM

Our son started the kindergarten program at PS 112 this year. We love the warmth of the teachers and the principal but the school is very disorganised. We expected to receive a welcome letter at home prior to school starting with pictures of teachers and their names so that our son could familiarise himself with them - but this did not happen. there was no separate orientation for NEST kids and since starting full days we have no idea what the schoolday looks like in terms of curriculum. The busing is a mess - NEST kids who had submitted limited travel time forms with their iep months ago still have not been updated in OPT's system so parents who live far away are commuting to drop and pick their kids. NEST programs can be an easier transition for kids and their parents if the schools which are getting funded for these programs just organised themselves a little - NEST parents are more than happy to help out also . These kids are walking into a huge chaotic cafeteria in the morning to new teachers and new routines with no prior preparation - thsi really needs to be improved.

Name: katy
10 September 2012 - 3:33PM

i also wanted to add that NEST at PS 112 is in an area with a high crime rate and the school does not have security the way the public schools in influential areas have them - it is unfair to keep on building new schools for typically developing kids close to home and have NEST kids commute to far away neighbourhoods to be in these programs. dont get me wrong - the staff and school seems to be a great teaching environment but NEST programs need to be included in building plans in new schools that are opening around the city so that the kids can be closer to home.

Name: Bronxmom
21 January 2013 - 1:39AM

My son started Kindergarten this year in ps 396 in the Bronx. I agree with Katy about the schools being in a BAAAAD neighborhood. The program is great but the neighborhood is scary. People walking around high on drugs. Many of the ASD kids in his school live in a nice neighborhood in the bronx and they are all being bussed to a dangerous area. That is our only problem with the school. We feel bad that we are sending him there. I wish they could have the program in our zoned school especially since it is the zoned school for many of the asd kids

Name: Katy
19 March 2013 - 11:57AM

A big issue for ASD kids who live far away from the ASD NEST schools is travel time. Limited travel time forms are becoming very hard to get approved and parents of children attending end up commuting with their kids, paying high taxi fares and kids getting exhausted from the commute. For us, our child attends an ASD NEST program and his school day involves 6 hrs 20 min of school + 2 hours commute + 30 min of sitting in the cafeteria in the morning because his bus has to drop kids at another school which starts much earlier than his. We are 6 months into the program and have had one impartial hearing to get the morning pick up changed from 6:30 am to 7 am but the mornings are still a struggle. The founders of the ASD NEST program need to talk to the board of ed and allow those kids who live so far away special accomodations in terms of travel time - the kids will be more attentive in school and get more out of the school day. OR the other solution is to start including ASD NEST programs in zoned schools which is the ideal solution - integration within the community you live in is much more beneficial for the kids who need the social connection . the social connection at schools that are out of zone stay within the schoool only.

Name: Liz
27 March 2013 - 12:02AM

Does anyone know of any ASD NEST middle school in Queens?

Name: TD
24 May 2013 - 2:12AM

Yes there will be 3 Nest Middle Schools in Queens next year

Name: Maryanne
9 August 2013 - 9:23PM

Is there an asd nest high school program n queens? Where?

Name: Maryanne
14 August 2013 - 1:05AM

Is there an ASD Nest high school in queens?

Name: Greg Boustead
14 August 2013 - 4:09PM

Hi Maryanne and Liz,

I've reached out to the folks at the NYC Dept of Education ASD Nest program for an update and clarification on their current plans for Queens and other boroughs. As soon as I hear back, I'll update this thread with the information.

Thanks for your comments,

SFARI.org, community manager

Name: Greg Boustead
27 August 2013 - 10:08PM


There are a number of ASD NEST sites in Queens currently, some of which are new this school year. You can find the complete list and map of NEST sites here: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/asdnest/schools/publicschools

The director of the NEST program informs me that the best way for families and school or health professionals to learn more about the program and availability at specific sites is to contact Paul Byas, either by phone at 718-391-6872 or email pbyas@schools.nyc.gov, who can provide an official inquiry form upon request.

I hope that helps.

SFARI.org, community manager

Name: Arby
20 October 2014 - 1:51PM

Hello, is there any nest programme in a good neighborhood in the bronx?
Thank you all.

Name: Greg Boustead
20 October 2014 - 2:11PM

These are the current public schools in the Bronx with NEST programs:

PS 68 (K-5th grade)
PS 396 (K-5th grade)
MS 363 (6th-7th grade)
One World Middle School (6th grade)

Complete list of schools and contacts for further info here: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/asdnest/schools/publicschools

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