Interview with Julie Balderston
Specialist in Autism Spectrum Disorders
By: Catherine Knott, Ph.D.
Julie Balderston, who has a Master’s in speech and language pathology, has spent ten years working in the public schools, specializing in Asperger’s Syndrome and the autism spectrum. Her work with children and teens with Asperger’s and with high functioning students on the autism spectrum has led to her appreciation of their gifts; she feels extremely fortunate for the opportunities she has to work with these students. Her positive attitude shows in her dedication to meeting their educational needs at the highest levels possible. Rather than lowering expectations for children with Asperger’s learning in the public schools, her motto is “the sky is the limit”.
Establishing an Educational Program
Julie Balderston stresses that it is best for the students when they are diagnosed early, to allow for early intervention and support. She notes that the educational criteria and the medical criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome 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 impairments in communication, difficulty with some social interactions, restrictive areas of interest, sensory oversensitivity, and a consistency in these characteristics over time and in intensity. In the public schools, once students are found eligible for Autism Spectrum support, most get on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and are given a case manager. The case manager then becomes their advocate and a voice for them in the school system.
When she acts as a case manager for a student with Asperger’s Syndrome, Balderston advocates for the student both in and out of the classroom. In the classroom, she works with the teachers to accommodate the student’s needs and modify materials in class. She often suggests alternative assignments and encourages the teacher to focus on the student’s special skills; she also helps students and teachers to set educational goals. She says, “I do not want kids to be held back or have a bad experience with education.” Instead, when a student encounters an area where characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome may be causing them extra difficulties, Balderston helps teachers to look for other avenues for the student to express his or learning and abilities.
For example, handwriting is an area of difficulty for many students with Asperger’s, whose fine motor and writing motor skills may not be good. Now that computers have become an essential part of upper levels of education, it works well to accelerate that learning for the student with Asperger’s; teachers should be helping these students start keyboarding by third grade.
In addition, because so many students with Asperger’s 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 that Asperger’s is a gift. Balderston sees figuring out how to accelerate the students’ learning in certain areas as a central part of her mission, and 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 school.
Working on Social Skills
Social issues are a huge factor in the comfort level and satisfaction of all students at school, and in particular for students with Asperger’s because socializing can be a more difficult, and even painful, task for them. 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 Asperger’s. She creates different kinds of safe places for different age levels, but all of them allow students to feel comfortable, have some time to regroup away from sensory over-stimulation, and even keep some materials related to their special interests. For older students, she keeps snacks in the room, and provides anime and manga resources, something she has found many of her Asperger’s students enjoy.
Trained paraprofessionals provide an additional support system for these students, helping them stay on track in their classes, and making sure that the students get extra help with social skills as needed. Balderston takes these assistants, who come to her with training from the school district, to professional meetings with her where they learn new methods, including techniques, and strategies to help students with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Each student’s situation is so specific that it is vital that the educators and specialists are able to tailor each one’s program individually. The kind of specialized, direct one-on-one instruction that Balderston and others with her training can provide is also vital for many students with Asperger’s, to help them as they learn to communicate with other students more proficiently.
Michelle Winner’s Social Thinking program, which originated in San Jose, is an exciting program that has given Balderston and her colleagues many success stories. This program emphasizes how to be part of the group, how to have conversations (besides those about the student’s special interest), social story work, and perspective-taking. The program also uses unique ways to show students how to create mental “Friend Files”- and how to be able to access the right mental file if one is going to interact with a particular friend. Students with Aspergers’ Syndrome 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 members have had excellent success with the Winner’s program. For example, students with Asperger’s often have to learn that 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 Asperger’s student to think of the answer, but not always to shout it out – and why it doesn’t work to have outbursts in class.
“Perspective – ‘being in someone else’s shoes’ type of thinking is really difficult.
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 working with students in the area of organization. Students with Asperger’s may have a particularly hard time getting -and staying-organized. Balderston stresses that it takes long term mapping, not just a simple color coded system, to get everything mapped out for the whole semester in a linear way that is 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 both with classroom tasks, and for homework assignments. It is often easier for students with Asperger’s to work for a short, specified period of time, and 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 Asperger’s to be successful in college and in a career.
A Community-based Education
Educating students in the public schools should also include community based life-skills work, and explorations of the wider possibilities in the community. It is especially rewarding for students and educators alike when field trips yield high interest discoveries. Recently, Balderston organized a field trip for middle school and high school students with Asperger’s Syndrome to look at a nuclear reactor. They got a tour, and 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. Special interests such as these can be used to get out into the local community, meeting others with their interests. Parents of students who tend to stay cooped up in their rooms with the computer should consider local field trips that they could take that would give their students a chance to explore special interests further.
Balderston notes that many of the students with Asperger’s like manga and anime. Teachers talk about it in the Asperger’s classes, and use it for field trips; they try to bring more kids in through starting a club. 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 special interests; so are people in the community.
“The sky is the limit,” she says again.
Transitioning to College
Watching her first group transitioning 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 the community college during the last two years of high school, to give them both the opportunity to learn at a challenging level, to satisfy their intensive interests, and also to ease into the college experience. At a conference she was struck by the statistics – that if the students make it through the high school system, and have great SAT scores, as many students with Asperger’s do, they can succeed and do very well in college.
Because both organizational skills and self advocacy are key to college success for students with Asperger’s Syndrome, all the leg work 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, and he had some requests for getting the help he needed 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: