Special education teachers at Arvada West High School are working to help their students beat the odds.
The Challenge Program, led by teachers Patti Molholm and Trevor Mckenzie, is for all students at the school with learning disabilities. Students’ disabilities range from mild to extreme, and the program serves a large number of students with autism, a complex condition that is often hard to identify.
Schools have adapted to the increasing numbers of youth diagnosed with autism by adding programs that fit students’ needs. However, a study released on May 14 showed greater problems lie beyond high school graduation. The study focused on young adults with autism spectrum disorder, and the percentage of this population that went on to higher education or found employment within six years of graduating high school.
According to the study, six years after graduation only 35 percent had attended college and only 55 percent had a job.
Heather Taormina, whose daughter, a freshman at Arvada West High School who has autism, said she is impressed by how the school works with students with disabilities in their Challenge Program.
“I’m humbled by the support she found at A-West,” Taormina said. “They really worked with her to get her on track.”
Previous teachers told Taormina they thought her daughter had behavioral problems, but she was diagnosed with autism last year. According to Molholm, misdiagnosis is a common occurrence.
When Taormina’s daughter entered Arvada West, special education teachers created an Individual Education Program (IEP) for her. The IEP allows her to attend general education classes and get specialized help in areas where she struggles.
“Most people who meet her wouldn’t think she had a disability,” Taormina said.
Her daughter has a very high functioning former of autism, known as Asperger Syndrome. She is still able to lead a mostly normal life, able to care for herself, but she does not pick up on social cues as other children her age would.
“Jokes are kind of lost on her,” Taormina said.
She said her daughter takes everything literally, so decision making is challenging and would limit her in her job possibilities. Taormina said her daughter believes everything she is told, so even though she is able to care for herself and will eventually live on her own, her parents worry that is not the best option for her.
“One of our greatest fears is that she’ll be taken advantage of,” Taormina said.
Mckenzie said he has another student in the program with Asperger Syndrome who is enrolled in advanced placement classes at A-West. This student has difficulty with interpersonal relationships so might have a hard time in the work place or adjusting to life at a four-year university, he said.
“He is college bound,” Mckenzie said. ”But we have to problem solve as a team and figure out how to help.”
Molholm said some individuals with autism have obsessive compulsions, which make it hard for them to break routines, and they are easily distracted by sensory overload.
“We try to support students in coping with, or managing, OCD behaviors, but you need employers who understand,” Mckenzie said.
The school also provides taps in to programs in the area to help students with autism and other disabilities find jobs after high school.
The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Golden helps students with job training and placement throughout the county. One of Molholm’s former students was placed in a job at a coffee shop after high school. Before starting work there, the student practiced the tasks she would be doing with members from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. She has been able to maintain her job there since graduating.
“Structure helps with the transition,” Molholm said. “They need to be able to anticipate what’s going to happen next.”
The College Living Experience, in Denver, helps graduates with disabilities enter higher education, in a safe environment; and the School to Work Alliance Program in Denver helps students with disabilities find careers after graduation.