Teacher of autistic kids searches for ‘key’ to unlock worlds

When Melissa Rooney was a pupil in elementary school in Georgia, she would watch special-education children being led to the basement room. “You could tell they were different by the way they walked and the way they behaved,” she says. She never saw them in her classroom or anyone else's classroom that she knew. “They were always downstairs,” she says. “Their classroom was under the stairs.”

Rooney always wanted to meet the children from under the stairs. “I just gravitated to people with special needs,” she says.

Now a veteran special-education teacher, Rooney, 43, volunteered in 2001 to teach students with severe autism at Vineyards Elementary School, the county's center for students with autism. She wanted to build bridges of understanding between the larger student body and the students with autism, who lack communication and social skills and display unusual, repetitive behaviors.

Children with autism vary widely in the types and severity of their problems. Rooney's four to seven students have problems so severe they need one-to-one help. In her classroom, progress is not measured by letter grades for academic performance but by how many times students exhibit appropriate behavior.

It's a special day when her students don't throw a tantrum, bite, scream, scratch, grab, hit or hurt themselves.

Rooney sets high expectations nonetheless, says former principal Robert Spano. “She has an attitude that you never say die. She just doesn't give up,” he says. Some students have made enough progress that they are able to go on field trips and take mainstream physical education, art and music classes.

Drawing from a large repertoire of methods, including music, sign language, peer interaction, verbal behavior and behavior modification, Rooney works with therapists, parents and aides to craft plans for each child. Every hour of every day is filled with trial, error and more trial.

“It may be the one tiny thing you did differently that makes the difference. You have to have the patience to try new things,” Rooney says. “You can't be afraid to ask for help. You don't know what's the special key that unlocks the door.”

Rooney's willingness to go outside for help made a difference for 10-year-old Brianna Watts, says Brianna's mother, Debra. The family had exhausted just about every conceivable therapy before an outside expert was brought in who teaches students to use sign language “mands” to ask for things. With Rooney, aides and everyone at home reinforcing her “mands,” Brianna is finally able to communicate in a limited way.

“Before we did that, Brianna's world was limited to her cubbyhole. If you mentioned her name, she'd start screaming and hitting herself,” Watts says. “She knew you expected something of her, but she didn't know what it was. It was very frustrating for her.”

But what works for Brianna may not work for others, so Rooney adjusts. “If I have to be silly, I'm silly. If I have to be firm, I'm firm,” she says.

Kristopher Cronebach, 10, has moved beyond severe behavioral problems and is now reading, writing and doing math. For him, structure, direction and especially peer interaction were the keys. Rooney trains volunteers from other classes to work in her classroom and finds children often reach her special-needs children in ways adults can't.

“The power of a peer is tenfold over that of an adult,” she says.

Rooney knew the “reverse mainstreaming” was truly working when the volunteers started spending recess with her students. “It's gratifying walking to the cafeteria, seeing kids calling out your kids' names, saying hello,” she says.

More gratifying is seeing how much the student volunteers benefit from the interaction.

“I want them to have respect and compassion for people who are different from themselves,” she says. “And I don't want them to have fear. There are even some adults who are afraid, who don't understand.”

By Pam Witmer
13 November 2003