Students with Autism Learn L.I.F.E. Lessons 

Innovative programs create a meaningful education experience for diverse learners

April 29, 2013

How do you plan meaningful instruction for a group of high school students who generally stay in one classroom all day, perform at various skill levels, and may have difficulty with communication skills and social interaction?


That’s the question that special education teachers Emily Barnowski and Linda White are working to answer through the L.I.F.E. (Low Incidence Functional Education) Program at Bowen High School.


“You try a little of this and a little of that until you figure out what works for your individual students,” said Linda White, who has been a teacher at Bowen for the past seven years. “Some methods work and others don’t, but when you find one that does, it’s extremely rewarding.”


The L.I.F.E. Program at Bowen serves students with autism and other cognitive disabilities, working to provide them with practical and social skills so that they can become productive members of society.


“Social interaction is particularly difficult for our students,” said Ms. White. “They know that they’re different, but like any high school student, all they want is to fit in.”


One step taken by Bowen to address this challenge was the decision to start a chapter of Best Buddies International – a friendship program for special education and general education students. These groups meet weekly so that special education students can practice their communication skills and fight the social challenges of being in a self-contained classroom for much of the day.


“This has given our students a real feeling of belonging,” said special education teacher Emily Barnowsky. “It’s incredible what a difference it has made in just one year. These students never used to interact, and now we see them greeting each other in the hallways and starting up conversations. It’s created a new sense of community at Bowen.”


What serves as an intervention for the special education students is an enrichment opportunity for their peers, as it gives typically-developing students new insight on what it means to have diverse learning needs.


“Before Best Buddies, a lot of the regular education kids could be a little standoffish with our students, because they just didn’t know how to approach them,” said Ms. Barnowski. “Now they see that these students aren’t as different from them as they thought. It’s been a real education for everyone involved.”


In addition to practicing social skills with their peers, students in the L.I.F.E. Program improve their social interaction by working in the Marketplace – a mock school store that gives them the chance to learn daily living skills while continuing to work on communication.


“Many of our autistic students do not communicate verbally,” said Linda White, “but through their work in the store, we began to see creativity that just needed to be unlocked and cultivated.”


The overwhelming success of the school store inspired Bowen’s special education teachers to move it into a larger classroom this year, which has further expanded its benefit to students.


“There’s an endless foundation for lessons here,” said Emily Barnowski. “Art, science, math, matching, reading, and organizational skills, just to name a few.”


The L.I.F.E. Program also has a successful sewing center, which appeals to students from one end of the autism spectrum to the other.


“For some students, it simply helps them improve their fine motor skills,” said Linda White. “But others are motivated to make something they can be proud of. Many autistic students are very creative, so these kinds of projects appeal to them. We actually hope to get them into a vendor show so that they can sell what they’ve made.”


Other focus areas for the L.I.F.E. Program include a recent expansion of their mail room, and an emphasis on safe and practical cooking skills that can be transferred immediately to student homes.


“Our goal is to find innovative ways to create meaningful educational experiences for our students every day,” said Linda White. “That’s the mission of L.I.F.E. at Bowen.”