School Helps Autistic Kids Navigate 'Foreign Land' At Croyden Avenue School — one of the few public preschools in the country to offer one-on-one counseling for autistic children — progress comes on many scales. With the teachers' help, Gibson Brown's family is learning to accept his slow, but steady, development.
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This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Yesterday at this point in the show, we introduced you to a young boy, Gibson Brown, of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's autistic. He was born four months premature. He survived life-threatening complications. Now three, he goes to a special preschool for autistic children.

BRAND: It's called the Croyden Avenue School. It's rare. It's a public school that offers intensive counseling for autistic preschoolers and that can cost thousand of dollars at private preschools. In the second of our reports called the "Autism Chronicles," producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister follow along as Gibson goes to school.

Unidentified woman: Hi, Scurry! Welcome back!

Ms. ANGELA TELFER (Principal, Croyden Avenue School): My name is Angela Telfer, and I'm the principal here at Croyden Avenue School and today is Gibson's first day.

Unidentified Woman: Are you ready for school?

Ms. TELFER: And it looks like his dad has brought him in, and he seems pretty willing to go downstairs.

Mr. DARRICK BROWN (Gibson's Father): Bye.

Mr. GIBSON BROWN: Bye bye.

Mr. BROWN: I love you.

Unidentified Woman: Let's go, Gibs!

Ms. KATRINA BROWN (Gibson's Mother): I am Katrina Brown. I'm Gibson's mother. We've really been looking forward to this day. To see where we're heading and what to expect, and I feel really positive about the things that are in place for him. And it just makes me feel like he's in a really good place, where he needs to be.

Unidentified Woman: Gibson. Gibson, look. Good. Good cleaning.

Ms. TELFER: Typically this is the way we introduce a new student to the classroom, is first let them have some time to play, get to know the people a little bit, before they go into a booth and start to do some work.

Unidentified Woman: Here's a big train, do you like trains?

Ms. TELFER: Many of our kids come in, and they aren't talking. And so we work on speech, and we also work on picture systems to help them communicate and understand.

Unidentified Woman: Choo-choo. Can you say it? Say choo-choo.

Ms. TELFER: They perceive the world a little bit differently than typically developing children. And because they haven't learned some of those early communication and language skills, it makes the world kind of a confusing place for them.

Unidentified Woman: Here comes another train.

Ms. TELFER: Early childhood development for any child is a critical time. They're learning all kinds of things, and the learning process can be really rapid. For children with autism especially, catching them early and getting them into some really good intervention can really make a huge difference in their communication and language growth. Because, if you can imagine going through life not understanding what people are saying to you 100 percent of the time and not being able to communicate how you're feeling, it can be a pretty scary place. It almost seems like you're dropped in a foreign land, I think, for some of these children. And for some children that use behaviors to communicate and sometimes extreme behaviors to communicate, the earlier we can give them a different way, so they don't establish patterns that we don't want them to establish, then the earlier they can see, I can get my needs met in many different ways. And that will impact their lives as they go all through their school years.

Unidentified Woman: Gibson, say train.


Unidentified Woman: Good job talking.

Ms. TELFER: They were working hard to try to interact with him, and for a long time he was using the train on his own, and he would actually turn his back to him when they tried to interact. But they kept at it and kept trying to use the thing that he seemed to like the most, which was the train. And eventually he did say train for them and some other things.

Ms. BROWN: He will do smart things. He's really good at doing puzzles. He remembers parts of books that we've read to him. He does engage with us. He has problem solving skills. He figures things out on his own. And it's not that I expect a brain child or a genius or an Einstein or anything like that. It just makes me really worried when I see how far he still has to go.

Mr. BRIAN PATRICK TUCHECK (Senior, Western Michigan University): Time to go say Bye bye. Bye- bye.

Unidentified Woman: Bye Gibson.

Mr. TUCHECK: Let's go Gibson. Gibson, sit down.

Ms. CARMEN JONAITIS (Teacher, Croyden Avenue School): My name is Carmen Jonaitis, and I am a teacher in the Early Childhood Developmental Delay classroom here at Croyden Avenue School.

Mr. TUCHECK: Sit down, buddy.

Ms. JONAITIS: Gibson has been working with us for about a month and a half in a booth with a tutor.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, there you go. That's sitting down.

Ms. JONAITIS: There are about 20 different small sectioned off areas in the classroom all along the outside walls. They are somewhat soundproof but not completely. And so a child will be in there with one tutor or sometimes two, and they work one on one with different kinds of skills and activities.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, quiet hands.

Ms. JONAITIS: It's really helpful for them to have the cubicles because it shuts out a lot of the visual distraction when they are trying to learn and focus on the task at hand.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, arms up.

Ms. JONAITIS: It also helps with some of the sound that's happening in the classroom. Some children might pick out certain small behaviors, like they might flap their hands a little bit when they're excited. Sometimes you'll see them covering their ears if they are sensitive to sound, and it also helps the children to understand that this is the space in the classroom where I need to be right now. And once they've done that a few times, they know when they go there, it's time for me to work. It's time for me to sit and listen. It's time for me to pay attention to what I am supposed to do.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson. Good looking buddy.

I am Brian Patrick Tucheck (ph). I am a senior at Western Michigan University in the intermediate practicum.

Gibson, give me the book.

Ms. JONAITIS: We have a partnership with Western Michigan University to provide psychology practicum students that work with our students one on one.

Mr. TUCHECK: Awesome job giving me the book, Gibson! Way to go!

Ms. JONAITIS: It's very scripted.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, touch your nose.

Ms. JONAITIS: So when the child is asked to do something, they are asked the same way every time for a while, so that the language and the words don't get confusing for them. They might ask the children ten times to touch their nose, and they record how they did every single time.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, touch your nose.

Ms. JONAITIS: There's a lot of data that we use to determine progress. There are 10 steps to how to wash your hands, believe it or not, and we need to make sure that the tutors are using the same types of words to help the children learn all the steps. So on the wall here we have a strip of pictures. First picture is turn the water on, the next one hands wet, get soap.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, get soap.

Ms. JONAITIS: And those kids follow those steps with prompts from their tutor.

Unidentified Woman: He's doing just fine, still a little hesitant to talk with us. He speaks very quietly, and it's very difficult to understand him. So we're working on having him speak a little more forcefully. He's kind of a shy little guy, a little insecure, I think. And as he gets more comfortable with us, I think we'll be able to push a little bit more and a little bit more and perhaps pull more out of him.

Mr. TUCHECK: Gibson, arms up.

Ms. BROWN: We see him every day, and we work with him every day, and I sometimes feel like its like watching grass grow. It's just - I'm looking for little things, but I just don't necessarily see it. It's hard to see, I guess, the forest for the trees. But other people see a huge difference.

Mr. TUCHECK: He's improving in like all of his skills. He can identify objects even better.

Gibson, do this.

When you do manipulative imitations, say do this, he actually does it now.

Awesome job doing that buddy, way to go. Gibson, give me the shoe.

Ms. BROWN: I can remember being so excited because our son this summer was starting to put his sandals on by himself.

Mr. TUCHECK: Awesome job giving me the shoe.

Ms. BROWN: Then I go over to my brother's house, and they had a little girl over there. And she was born after our son. And yes, she is a girl, and girls tend to be more ahead. But it's time for her to go, and she puts her socks and shoes on and then goes and gets her coat, I think, oh my gosh.

Mr. TUCHECK: Awesome job giving me the baby, Gibson! Way to go! We're all done.

Ms. BROWN: I love my child dearly, and I have to accept where he's at. And our child is different, and I'm learning to just appreciate him for who he is and the miracle that he is and as far as he's come. I mean, he's really had to work so hard, and there are very few kids that I know that have had to work as hard as he has and has had to go through what he's been through. So when you think of it that way, he's done pretty good. He's doing really good.

Mr. TUCHECK: All right, Gibson. Time to go, bud. Time to go home.

BRAND: Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions in association with Chicago Public Radio.

CHADWICK: And if you missed part one of The Autism Chronicles, you can find it at, along with photos of Gibson at school.

It's autism. More to come after this.

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