Editor's note: Picking Up the Pieces is a Daily Press special series covering autism. The three-part series will focus on one autistic boy's experience, with coverage from three different perspectives: the parent, the teacher and the community.
GLADSTONE - Young David was lying on the floor behind the desk of his fourth-grade teacher at the Jones Elementary School in Gladstone. At first she thought he was asleep so she kept on with her other students. It wasn't unusual for David Robitaille to disassociate from the lesson at hand, and his most recent social studies papers were turned in without any answers on it.
But as she discussed the answers with the class, Ruth Skellenger said she was totally surprised when David responded with the correct answers. She questioned him as to why he didn't write down his answers on his school paper, but David was unable to answer her.
Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press
‘I think there’s something right down there,’ said David Robitaille, center. He shows fellow classmate, Bryson Gonzales, something he sees in the pond water his teacher, Ruth Skellenger, at right, has brought into her classroom as a science project. David was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome less than a year ago and has challenged his fourth-grade teacher to learn unique teaching techniques to help her student learn.
"I thought right away that I would have to work differently with David than with the other kids," she said. "I said, 'Let's get what you said down on paper.' Then, while he was still lying on the floor, we went through the four pages one at a time and as David told me the answers, I wrote them down. We did the four pages together and he knew every single answer."
Dealing with the youngster, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome less than a year ago, has been a work in progress for Skellenger.
"I wasn't really prepared for David," Skellenger said. "His mother informed me of the diagnosis, and said she finally got the paperwork this (school) year.
Skellenger said she is no stranger to dealing with special needs students.
"There's lots of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) kids, and this year I also have six special ed students and one with a brain injury," she explained. "I did have one autistic child in my class, but that was when I was teaching music, so I didn't deal with him on a daily basis. I didn't know very much about autism at the time."
With the sharp increase of youngsters diagnosed with autism in recent years, Skellenger said she attended a conference on the disorder at Northern Michigan University about two years ago. She explained that while autism can range from mild to severe, Asperger syndrome is a high functioning form of autism.
"It's not that David is unable to learn," she explained. "In fact, he's extremely bright. It's just that he learns on a different level than the other children in the class. David is wonderful on the computers, and it's his responsibility to turn on the classroom computers at the start of the school day."
Skellenger said David is currently "fixated" on the weather and checks out the weather report for the day before he comes to school each morning and posts a weather graphic on the board in front of the room when he arrives at school. He has even taped the week's forecasts and, after editing out the commercials, he plays the tapes in the classroom. David has expressed a desire to be a meteorologist when he grows up.
One symptom of autism is the affected child cannot meaningfully associate with other children and lacks the ability to be involved in group play.
"Actually, David can interact, but his ability to play with other children is different for him," said Skellenger. "When the kids are on the playground, he usually doesn't interact with them. The other kids are aware of David, and they go out of their way to try to be understanding. In fact, if they have a problem with something, like the computer or the microscope, they usually go to David rather than me."
Because of his syndrome, David is not able to adapt to change, and Skellenger said she can usually tell as soon as David enters her classroom what his day will be like.
"If he's already having a bad day, I can see it on his face," she said. "He's basically planned his day and I will have to work with it. If someone accidentally turns on a computer before David has a chance to, that's something that throws him off."
Excessive classroom noise is another trigger for David, and he becomes upset. If the noise becomes too much for him, it's not uncommon for him to stand with his hands on his ears and loudly rebuke the other students.
"For him, it's like being in a stadium filled with people all talking at once. It's very annoying to him," said Skellenger.
On one particular morning, the students came into the classroom after recess and found two aquariums half filled with dirty water on a table in front of the class. The sight created almost universal interest among the students - including David. Skellenger told the children that the water was from a pond on her family's property and the aquariums would remain in the classroom to study any changes in the water or to see if any organisms became visible.
The lesson sparked a discussion about pollution and the resulting classroom discussion was impressive. Whenever David named a pollutant and Skellenger challenged him with questions about his answer, he was always ready with an insightful response.
When it was time for math, the students were instructed to open their math books to a lesson on geometric shapes. While the youngsters leaned over the appropriate pages at their desks, David ambled over to the computer at Skellenger's desk and with a few key strokes, he opened a program to view the geometric shapes and studied them while Skellenger challenged her students through the lesson.
The fact that David made himself at home at her desk was not disturbing to Skellenger.
"I don't think he's sat in the chair at his desk all year," she said. "Usually he just leans over his desk or comes to mine. I really don't mind as long as he's not creating a disturbance."
While Skellenger said she is a stickler for respect and relative order in her classroom, her response to David's indiscretions is different from the other students.
"If a child is creating a problem, I generally count 1001 to 1003," she said. "After that there's a consequence, like maybe no recess, and they have to stay in a write 'I will be respectful and listen' or 'I will be kind and polite,' or 'I care about myself and others.' With David, I can't do that. It doesn't work for him. He's not purposefully being non-compliant. That's just where he's at - in his own little world."
When David has difficulty in the classroom, Jones Principal Karl Dollhopf said he occasionally has him come into his office for a little talk and he tries to find out what has triggered David's unacceptable behavior in the classroom.
"Usually he just needs a little time away from the other students so he can calm back down," said Dollhopf.
Skellenger said she isn't resistant to having children with special needs in her classroom.
"The schools preach inclusion and I believe in that," she said. "I want the kids to be a part as much as possible - particularly in writing and science. Whatever level they happen to be at, they usually enjoy experimenting. Kids learn in so many different ways. You just have to find the ways."