In the middle of the woods on a crisp autumn day, a student on the Challenge Course at Putnam Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services attempts to climb over a wooden wheel suspended between two trees. Teachers and fellow students help, and one student shouts out “You can do it!”
While that type of encouragement may not seem noteworthy, for this particular group of students, involved in the Walden School’s Social Climbing program, it is a major accomplishment. That’s because these students – all of whom have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders – rarely speak to one another.
“We’ve developed the Social Climbing program with the idea of helping students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders improve their social skills,” said Donna Abemayor, a challenge course facilitator for BOCES’ Center for Environmental Education who has a background in social work.
The autism spectrum is a group of pervasive developmental disorders characterized by difficulty communicating and socializing as well as repetitive behaviors. Abemayor wrote and received a grant from the Association for Challenge Course Technology in Deerfield, Illinois, to pilot the program for four weeks.
Twice a week, students in the Social Climbing program go to the outdoor challenge course where they help each other through a series of physical challenges like climbing an 8-foot wall, getting over a wooden wheel suspended between two trees or balancing a group of students on a 4 by 8 seesaw. The students, who attend the Walden School, are in a special program there for students with autism spectrum disorders.
School districts throughout the region already use the challenge course to help students understand the characteristics of an effective group of people as well as to promote problem-solving, leadership and team-building skills. Abemayor reasoned that if the course promoted communication among typical students, it might work for students with autism spectrum disorders as well.
“The research I did indicated that the use of a challenge course with children with autism spectrum disorders was needed,” said Abemayor. “Most of the existing research on the use of a challenge course as an intervention tool focused on treating children with diagnoses of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and other populations that are considered ‘at-risk youth.’ Other research focused on the broader concepts of child and adolescent self-esteem and team building.”
Prior to beginning the program, Abemayor asked parents of participating students to complete a detailed questionnaire about their child’s sociability to determine a baseline. “I’m going to give them a post-test after the program is complete to determine whether any progress has been made,” Abemayor said.
Though it’s too early to tell what effect the program may have long term, teacher Tom Oakes noted that he has seen a difference already. “I think the students are communicating more with each other and responding to each other better,” he said.
“It works so well when they rely on each other,” said Walden speech therapist Stephanie Alter. “We teach them how to do things, but then they can go to each other for help.”
Though the pilot program is nearing its end, Abemayor hopes to get funding to continue. “I’ve seen subtle changes where students take visual cues from each other and encourage each other,” Ms. Abemayor said. “I’d like to keep the program going throughout the school year.”
Photo: A student gets a boost over the wooden wheel on challenge course. Courtesy Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES