F-M partners with leading expert in the field of autism

Fayetteville-Manlius School District special education staff and administrators established a partnership with researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University to introduce a research-based, cutting-edge instructional methodology and strategies to teach students diagnosed with autism and moderate to severe communication disorders.

“Imagine a room filled with technology that has the potential to shape how children on the autism spectrum learn. Then picture a team of teachers, therapists and IT specialists driven by the singular purpose of accelerating communication and learning for these children. Well, stop imagining because that is the essence of the Mott Road program,” said Dr. Howard Shane, a Harvard Medical School associate professor and director of the Center of Communication Enhancement at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Shane served as a consultant for F-M during the 2015-16 school year and provided training in 2016-17 to all of the district’s special education staff on his Visual Immersion System.

Visual Immersion System (VIS) is a unique communication method that uses visual supports – such as videos, photographs and pictures, along with technology such as iPads and Apple watches – to enhance and expand the language and communication skills of students.

During the 2017-18 school year, the district formally partnered with Dr. Shane, along with Dr. Ralf Schlosser, a professor from Northeastern University, and other researchers, to bring VIS to a Mott Road Elementary School class of seven students diagnosed with autism.

F-M is the first and only school district that they have worked with.

“The progress and growth of our students participating in this project has exceeded all of our expectations,” said Lisa Miori-Dinneen, F-M’s assistant superintendent for special services. “The VIS methodology has been life-changing for our students and their families.”

Throughout this past school year, F-M special education staff and students benefited from the researchers’ expertise, and the researchers worked with the staff to gather data to determine the efficacy of this method.
F-M staff consistently sent videos of lessons to the research group and teleconferenced with them on a weekly basis, in addition to on-site visits by Dr. Shane and his colleagues.

VIS Works

VIS is unique because it systematically provides language instruction in a visual mode in the seven communicative functions: requesting, following directives, commenting, answering questions, protesting/refusing, organization/transitions and social pragmatics. In addition, it capitalizes on students’ high interest in technology.

“We had some children in the classroom who rarely or never spoke and did not have the ability to independently share information or get their wants and needs met,” Mrs. Miori-Dinneen said. “After one year of this specialized program, we found that the majority of the students met or exceeded their communication goals and some children are beginning to generate novel language independently.”

Parent Involvement

The students’ parents were actively involved in the project, participating in focus groups, surveys and meetings with F-M staff and the researchers. The feedback they shared of what was happening in their homes supported the success of the method. Many of the parents reported that their children were spontaneously verbalizing more at home.

Just in Time (JIT) Research

Two students in the class participated in a secondary research project regarding Just in Time (JIT) instruction. This research project focused on the effects of language and behavior of children with autism when directives are delivered through wearable technology, such as an Apple watch. This method allows students to receive a message or directive without attention being drawn to them or without the physical or verbal support from an adult. The project will include more students in the Mott Road classroom during the 2018-19 school year.

What’s Next

The collaboration with Dr. Shane and his team, as well as the research on VIS and JIT, will continue and expand during the 2018-19 school year. The district plans to explore the utility of augmented reality by using QR codes to increase the independence of students with disabilities at the high school level in completing activities of daily living and pre-vocational tasks.

In October, F-M’s special education staff involved in the Mott Road classroom will present at the Central New York Speech Language and Hearing Association conference with Dr. Shane on the use of VIS and JIT in a public school setting. In November, they will present at the American Speech Language and Hearing Association national conference.

“I believe that technology provides the opportunity for children to be reached and learn in ways that were never before possible. This unique classroom in the F-M School District is providing the opportunity to prove that,” Dr. Shane said.