June 25, 2017

Helping autistic children step by step

For many, coping with autism has been a struggle because of the lack of easily accessible information on the subject and facilities for those affected by it. Today, the Step by Step School has become a blessing for many autistic children and their parents, as it offers help and learning skills so that children with autism can lead better lives.

Students having fun with the teachers

Students having fun with the teachers

The Step by Step School is run by the Step by Step Foundation, a non-profit organization offering quality learning opportunities for children with autism or related disorders. The school opened Sept. 2011, founded by Kala (Kay) Ramnath, wife of a former British high commissioner to Guyana, who is also a mother of an autistic child and autism advocate. The foundation is presently chaired by Dr Suraiya Ismail, a nutrition consultant and educator.
In 2008, when Ramnath’s husband was posted to Guyana, they were fortunate enough to engage the services of a highly qualified Boston-based behavioural consultant, Dr James Ellis, who helped to set up their son Rohan’s intensive home teaching, using the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach.
Dr Ellis voluntarily used his spare time to see and advise other parents and, after three years of interacting with and helping these parents and their children, he is now fully signed up to the foundation. Dr Ellis’ main task included training the team of behavioural tutors who would go on to form the core of what is now The Step by Step School.

The ABA approach
The ABA approach is used by the school to improve the communication, social and behavioural skills of autistic children. The ABA method is scientifically proven to help them achieve their fullest potential. Each child with autism is different, so the ABA approach is based on assessing and responding systematically to an individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. Each child, therefore, has baselines set for them (through assessment) as well as goals and targets for learning skills.  The basic approach involves rewarding positive behaviour and discouraging negative behaviour (with each task broken down into small steps and practiced regularly) so the child begins to produce behaviour that gains rewards – from verbal praise, to small amounts of food, access to a favourite toy and so on.
This approach is then used to teach everything else from numbers to shapes to colours, labelling of objects, animals, household items, food categories to personal hygiene and care and appropriate behaviours in the home, at school and in public places. Requesting for food and toys, going to the toilet, wanting to play, completing a task, all of these are covered systematically in an ABA programme.
The teachers have been all been trained in ABA by Dr Ellis and have extensive experience. Dr Ellis continues to monitor and guide the work of the school. He is an expert psychologist who lives in the US, but visits the school regularly.
The school also encourages parental experience. The ABA method works best if parents continue to use it at home, and the school shows them how to do this. The school also welcomes parent volunteers; mothers and fathers can spend as much time as they wish at the school, learning how to help their child develop fully, and participating in the school’s activities.

A Step by Step teacher working with her students

A Step by Step teacher working with her students

Helping autistic children
Step by Step believes that if an autistic child is exposed as early as possible to the ABA approach, he or she can make the greatest progress. ABA can be started as early as age 3, or even earlier. The school accepts children from ages 2 to 12.
The effectiveness of the ABA system has been clearly seen with the students at Step by Step. One such student is Sameir, one of the first children to attend the school. When he started at the school, Sameir did not have any way to communicate, had very little understanding of language, and had a very difficult time staying focused.
Although Sameir is still not talking, he now uses some approximations of words, and uses a picture communication system. He has also made great progress in following a variety of directions, playing games with other children, and staying more focused on the social activities. Sameir arrives at school every day with a bright smile and hugs for everyone.
Speaking to Guyana Times Sunday Magazine, a few parents, who have seized the opportunity to work with their children at the school, indicated that they have seen significant improvements in their children. Although it can still be frustrating at times, the parents pointed out that understanding autism has made it easier for them to cope with their children. They encourage other parents who have autistic children to take advantage of the programmes being offered at the school.
Dr Ismail said that setting up and running a foundation and school that offers high quality state-of-the-art help to Guyanese children with autism has been a collective labour of love for the executive, parents and donors. However, to achieve its goals and objectives requires urgent and sustained long-term funding and commitment. Therefore, the public can help by making a donation, committing to a monthly or quarterly donation, sponsoring a child from a needy family, volunteering time to help with bus duty or helping with the children during school hours.
The foundation hopes to launch a public awareness campaign to create a better understanding of the needs of children with physical and developmental disorders, to reduce the stigma associated with the disabilities, and to encourage parents to seek appropriate assistance for their children.
For more information on the Step by Step programmes for autistic children and how you can help call 222-2633 or 231-4172.