Santa Barbara News Press

A new path for autistic kids

Before the school year started, 6-year-old Kevin Bowen used to stare into space when his mother asked him questions, like “Do you want to read this book or that book?” Now he knows that all questions require some sort of response — even if it’s just a nod.

Kevin accomplished this key social development step in a new class for children with autism begun in September in the Goleta elementary school district. The class at Kellogg School has six kids, but more are on the way.

Student Brandon Geise gets help printing from foster grandparent Carol Rowland. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
Student Brandon Geise gets help printing from foster grandparent Carol Rowland. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

Last year, district officials identified 17 children ages 3 to 5, with varying degrees of the disorder, expected to begin kindergarten in the next three years. (Four started this year.) That number surpassed by two the total number of autistic students attending schools in the entire elementary district.

The numbers aren’t as high in Santa Barbara, where 12 students have been identified. But at Cleveland Elementary, two children are enrolled in a similar program begun this year.

The numbers reflect a larger phenomenon in the United States, where one in 160 children is now diagnosed with varying degrees of the disability, a brain disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially. That compares with one in 2,500 in the mid- to late 1980s, said Dr. Lynn Koegel, the clinical director of the Autism Research and Training Center at UCSB. With the mushrooming numbers has come increased media attention, and still unproven theories about a cause, such as prenatal exposure to certain medications and inoculations for measles, mumps and rubella.

The Goleta class provides one-on-one teaching to each of the kids, and it is expensive. The cost to the district is $165,000 out of a $29 million budget. With five district-funded teachers and aides for the six students, it amounts to about $27,000 per student annually, compared to the roughly $5,000 for most other students. (UCSB also funds one student teacher.)

But because Goleta Union enjoys a rare funding status related to the high property tax revenue generated within the district and its declining enrollment, it is better off financially than the vast majority of California school districts.

Goleta school officials traveled extensively to study model programs before setting up their own this year.

As a result, parents of students with the disorder have a “middle ground” option. Last year, parents could send them to either the “special day classes” for all students with developmental disabilities — such as mental retardation and cerebral palsy — or the regular classroom, where they would be watched over by an instructional aide.

In the special classroom in Goleta, the students ponder not only traditional subjects but learn social skills that other children pick up more easily.

One second-grade student who used to spit at the wall or “cuss out” classmates when they tried to talk to him has learned to say “no” when the head teacher, Brent Elder, asks him if he feels like talking.

“I’ll say ‘OK, then keep it cool and if you do we’ll talk about it,’ ” Mr. Elder said.

Autistic children “are not as concerned with social conformities,” said Dr. Koegel. “A (successful) teacher’s not going to say, ‘If you don’t do your homework, you can’t go to recess.’ A child with autism might say, ‘Fine.’ ”

Also, such children often need either more or less sensory input than others.

A student whose sensory needs are underactivated might crave deep-pressure rubbing occasionally throughout the day; a hypersensitive student might be unable to focus on anything but the feeling of the seam on the toe of his sock. Nearly half of people with autism are hypersensitive to noise.

“For them, the (school) bell ringing might seem like the sound of a dentist’s drill or a jet plane taking off,” said Helen Bird, who works with special education students in Goleta as an inclusion specialist.

In the Goleta class, the five boys and one girl take a daily “sensory break,” with an occupational therapist squeezing the hands and heads of some children or rubbing their arms and legs with a plastic brush. One child who has a need for oral input will receive a specially made rubber toy to chew on, providing an alternative to chewing on his hands.

Parents and educators seem to be pleased with the progress of the Goleta class.

Kevin’s mother, Terri Bowen, has noticed marked improvements in his writing skills.

“He’s now working on forming letters and numbers,” she said.

Some of the kids in the class spend up to half the day with “typically developing” kids. Dr. Koegel said that research in this past year suggests moving them toward full inclusion.

“Our end goal in life is to not have them in segregated settings,” said Dr. Koegel, who heads an inclusion program in the 500-student Montecito Elementary School for the eight children there with varying degrees of the disorder. “You want them to have jobs.”

Regular students, she said, also benefit.

“The typical kids are absolutely wonderful with kids with autism,” said Dr. Koegel, who was careful to credit the Goleta district for responding to parents’ requests. “There are several kids in each class who want to sit and help. It really makes your heart soar.”

Goleta parent Tambra Boydston can attest to that.

Her fifth-grade daughter, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, has been in the regular classroom since kindergarten and sometimes gets nudged in the right direction by nearby students.

“Once in a while they’ll notice she’s not quite focused. She’ll be staring out the window during reading and a kid will point where they are in the book,” she said.

Now, her daughter enjoys sleepovers and birthday parties with a circle of friends. But Ms. Boydston doesn’t necessarily credit the full-on regular classroom experience for her daughter’s social success.

“That’s who she is,” she said. “One thing that made it tough to diagnose her is she wanted to be cuddled. There are some that are that way.”

Mr. Elder said the goal of his Goleta class is to eventually integrate the students. But for now the structured environment is better for most of them.

“With autism, the world is chaotic,” he said. “Routine and sameness provide comfort in a world they have a hard time understanding.”

In the classroom, the most important asset is a teacher’s patience, a trait for which 24-year-old Mr. Elder is well known.

On a daily basis, one 5-year-old used to scream “No!” repeatedly and run around the room when he didn’t want to do an assignment, like learning how to count. Now, he knows to simply say “I’m not ready” when he needs a break before starting such a task.

The most severely affected student in the class is extremely withdrawn, and Mr. Elder can often spend 10 minutes sitting face-to-face with the boy, coaxing him to put on his shoes.

“Stand up,” he said evenly to the boy on a recent school day. The child was softly singing and muttering to himself while holding his ear and looking at his raised hand. “Pick up your shoe, please. Stand up. Hand me your shoe, please. Pull (the Velcro) off. Nice job.”


Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterized by three distinctive behaviors and is generally apparent in children by the age of three.

Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and sometimes exhibit repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. The behaviors can range from mild to disabling.

Many children with autism have a reduced sensitivity to pain, but are abnormally susceptible to sensations such as sound, touch, or other sensory stimulation. These unusual sensitivities may contribute to behavioral symptoms such as a resistance to being cuddled or hugged.

There is no cure for autism, but symptoms often lessen with treatment and with age.

— Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health


Carol Rowland, one of the “foster grandparents” in a Kellogg School program for students with autism, helps Kevin Bowen complete a class project. Kevin is one of six students in the class.

Jenny Wolfrom, an instructional assistant, works with student Jordan Frank as he examines an “emotion card” during a one-on-one activity at Kellogg School.