Students with autism can do great thingsThat’s the message Willow River teacher Tracy Johnson wants people to know about the students in her class and others in the district from kindergarten through high school.
By: Meg Heaton, Hudson Star-Observer
That’s the message Willow River teacher Tracy Johnson wants people to know about the students in her class and others in the district from kindergarten through high school.
“I think if I wanted people to know one thing about my students, it is that every one of them has the ability to be something great. My job is to figure out how to get them there.”
Johnson says children with autism are often underestimated and expected to be underachievers but she knows different. “It is a question of working with them to find a path that works. That can be different than what other students experience but if it gets the job done, that is what counts,” said Johnson.
The music therapy program at Willow River is part of that effort. Fully funded through donations and fundraisers, Johnson’s students regularly meet with music therapist Erin Shields of the renowned MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Unlike their regular music class, Shields’ sessions use music to help the student learn relaxation techniques, make eye contact and interact socially. Music is used to help students deal with emotions and to work together in a group. One of their activities includes learning to play handbells and read music. The students will be among the performers at the First Presbyterian Church Evening of Music and Art on Saturday. (See attached link for related story.)
Johnson said when working with students with autism, the important thing is to understand where the child is at when it comes to being in school and what they need to learn.
In their initial years in school, getting students accustomed to their new environment and their school routine is a big priority. By the time they reach Johnson’ class, it is about providing what each student needs to learn the skills they need to succeed and move forward in their education.
“These kids really struggle to learn but in most cases we find a way and it gets easier. And so often they have hidden talents. One of my students had always had trouble with math but we worked on it and suddenly something clicked and he has really blossomed. It was talent that was always there that just needed to be tapped. He maybe does it differently than other students but he’s going to be great nonetheless.”
Johnson says parents are an important part of the team approach she and her colleagues take with their autistic students.
“Our parents are amazing. They are so committed to the success of their children and we work together closely. They share with us what works at home and we share the strategies we use at school that could maybe be helpful at home. We all want them to be as successful as possible,” says Johnson.
While Johnson and educational aides in the program spend a lot of time with their students, the students also spend time in regular education classes at their grade level, working on subjects they can handle in the classroom and interacting with their peers.
“We want them to have as much interaction with other students as possible. That is the best way for them to learn valuable social skills and to pick up on behaviors that are important.” Johnson said they also employ “reverse mainstreaming,” where regular education students come into her classroom to play games, use the computers, read together with her students as a way to promote mutual understanding and acceptance.
“The regular education kids get it. We talk a lot about in this school and what it means to be a friend to kids who are different from you. We’ve found that as they learn from one another, they act as advocates for our students as they move on to middle school and high school.”
Johnson said the success of the program can also be attributed to the collaboration between the special needs teachers and regular classroom teachers. “We meet regularly to talk about how our students are doing in their classes and to problem-solve and find strategies that work. They want our kids to succeed just as much as we do.”
Johnson said she has learned to be patient when it comes to her students and that it is often worth the wait.
“Things don’t happen fast. You learn that whatever step they take, it is in the right direction because eventually they will succeed. Autism is tough to understand but even tougher for these kids to live with. They can’t help how they are but they certainly can learn. Some days we all need to take a deep breath before we get back to work. But it is so worth it to see how far they can come in the three years with us…. They can do great things.”