Interview with Julie Balderston
Specialist in Autism Spectrum Disorders
By: Catherine Knott, Ph.D.
Julie Balderston has a Master’s in speech and language pathology and spent ten years working in the public schools. Her work with children and teens with high-functioning autism led to her appreciation of their gifts. She feels extremely fortunate for the opportunities gained by working with these students. Her positive attitude inspires students to reach their fullest potential. Rather than lowering expectations for children with autism learning in the public schools, her motto is “the sky is the limit”.
Establishing an Educational Program
Julie Balderston stresses students get evaluated as early as possible to allow for early intervention and support. She notes the educational and medical criteria for autism spectrum disorder are somewhat different, making it important for parents to work with school personnel as well as their family doctor or other specialists. Public schools generally look at diagnostic criteria that include a consistency of impairments in communication, difficulty with social interactions, restrictive areas of interest, sensory oversensitivity .
Once students are found eligible for Autism Spectrum support, most get on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and a dedicated case manager. The case manager becomes their advocate in the school system.
When she acts as a case manager for a student with autism, Balderston advocates for the student both in and out of the classroom. In the classroom, she works with teachers to accommodate the student’s needs, set educational goals, and modify materials in class. She often suggests alternative assignments and encourages the teacher to focus on the student’s special skills.
“I do not want kids to be held back or have a bad experience with education,” she says. Instead, when a student encounters an area where they issue of autism may be causing them extra difficulties, Balderston helps teachers find other avenues for students to address their deficits using their strengths.
For example, handwriting is an area of difficulty for many students with autism Their fine motor and writing motor skills may not be good. Now that computers have become an essential part of education, it works well to accelerate that learning for the student with autism. It’s suggested teachers help these students start keyboarding by third grade.
In addition, because so many students with autism focus intensely on special interest areas, Balderston helps teachers and school personnel to “make sure that we can tap into their special areas and interests and let them excel and shine in those areas.” Because of this kind of encouragement and support, students who work with her truly believe their autism is a gift.
Balderston sees figuring out how to accelerate a students’ learning= as a central part of her mission–she becomes the proponent of change and improvement in these areas. Finding mentors for the students in these special areas also helps encourage and support students to stay enthusiastic about attending and learning in school.
Working on Social Skills
Social issues are a huge factor in the comfort and satisfaction of all students at school–especially students with autism. Socializing can be difficult, and even a painful task.
Balderston believes that establishing a safe place for students at each level, kindergarten through high school, is critical for the well-being of students with autism. She creates different kinds of safe places for each age level. all of them allow students to feel comfortable, have time to regroup from sensory overstimulation, and enjoy materials related to their special interests. For older students, she keeps snacks in the room and provides anime and manga resources–something she found many of her autistic students enjoy.
Trained paraprofessionals provide additional support for the students, helping them stay on track in their classes and s get extra help with social skills . Balderston takes these assistants, who come to her with training from the school district, to professional meetings where they learn new methods and strategies to help students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.
Each student’s situation is so specific that it is vital educators and specialists tailor each student’s program individually. The kind of specialized, direct one-on-one instruction that Balderston and others teach provide opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive.
Michelle Winner’s Social Thinking program, which originated in San Jose, is an exciting program giving Balderston and her colleagues many success stories. This program emphasizes how to be part of the group, have conversations (besides those about the student’s special interest), social story work, and perspective-taking. The program also teaches students how to create mental “Friend Files” and be able to access the right mental file when they interact with a particular friend.
Students with autism often need to be taught specific skills for socializing, and the Michelle Winner’s program provides a way that works, according to Balderston. She and her staff had excellent success with Winner’s program. For example, students with Asperger’s often have to learn eye contact has meaning. The program teaches them to know what to look for. It also gives them some of the whys of behavior expectations that they may not be able to infer on their own. For instance, the program teaches the student with autism to think of the answer without always shouting it out.
Perspective – being in someone else’s shoes type of thinking is really difficult for children and teens with autism.
“We try to bring up some of that same social thinking in their educational work, e.g. in novels, stories, characters. If it is a mother, knowing your mother, what can you guess about how she is feeling? We ask the students to think about what is implied.” Balderston has many examples of how she and her colleagues help students with Asperger’s to understand others better. “My hope is that the kids I am working with now, who are young, whom I will have for many years, maybe these kids will have a better chance not to have as many of the social deficits and problems (as the kids who went undiagnosed for years).”
Building Organizational Skills
Balderston also spends much of her time helping students with organization. Students with high-functioning autism may have a particularly hard time getting and staying organized. Balderston stresses it takes more than a simple color-coded system to get everything mapped out for the whole semester in a linear way easy for the student to follow.
The concept of working time is also elusive for some students. Balderston and her assistants use a visual timer on the computer, which shows time disappearing with a red bar that gradually gets smaller and smaller. The timer helps with classroom tasks and homework assignments. It is often easier for students with autism to work for short, specified time periods then take a break. The visual timer helps them manage these intervals on their own. Building organizational skills is one of the most important things that parents and teachers can do to help the student with autism to be successful in college and in a career.
A Community-Based Education
Using the community to explore and practice life skills helps gives engaging opportunities for personal growth. It is especially rewarding for students and educators alike when field trips yield high interest discoveries. Recently, Balderston organized a field trip for middle and high school students with high functioning autism to tour a nuclear reactor lab. A nuclear physicist showed them a classroom and demonstrated several experiments. The students were excited, and so was the physicist. He asked if they could extend the field trip and ended up holding their attention for two and a half hours. Community experiences like these take children with autism out of their comfort zones and allow them to explore interests and interact with others.
As mentioned earlier, Balderston notes many students with high functioning autism like manga and anime. Teachers talk about it in classes and use it for field trips. They encourage participation in special interest clubs. The officers are students on the autism spectrum, but anyone in the school is invited to come to it. It turns out that many other students love to talk about these topics–so are people in the community.
“The sky is the limit,” she says again.
Transitioning to College
Watching her first group transition to college, Balderston underlines how fortunate she feels to work with these students. Each one is unique. Some are brilliant, with high IQ’s, but may be unable to get through a straightforward course such as beginning Spanish because it is not an area of special interest for them. She tries to get these students enrolled in community college during the last two years of high school to challenge and satisfy their intensive interests as well as ease into the college experience. At a conference she was struck by the statistic if students make it through the high school system and have great SAT scores, as many students with high functioning autism do, they can succeed and do very well in college.
Because both organizational skills and self-advocacy are key to college success, all the legwork parents, teachers, and specialists like Balderston do in high school really benefits these students in college. “If I can do anything to have kids able to advocate for themselves, understand their own strengths and struggles – if I can nip that failure (to express their needs) so that they don’t have that early adulthood depression, I feel we have succeeded,” Balderston says.
Balderston said she had one of the best days of her life a few days before our interview when she got an email from one of her old students. An exceptionally bright student, he learned in her program that he had to use whatever mode he needed to advocate for himself and express his needs. He also learned how to express himself through writing when necessary. Now he wrote to her that he had the skills to advocate for himself successfully in college. He mentioned the requests for getting help in his social studies class. He told her, “I don’t know how to guess how someone is feeling,” and also, “I can’t read the teacher’s handwriting.”
Two years ago, he would have just said, “I don’t understand”.
For more information on Michelle Winner’s program for students with Asperger’s Syndrome, visit the website at: