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
“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
By Pam Witmer
13 November 2003