Interview with Dr. Angela Ver Ploeg, Nationally Certified School Psychologist
Angela Ver Ploeg came to work as a school psychologist in Alaska in 2000 after years of similar work in Ohio and Tennessee. She has a Master’s Degree and Educational Specialist degree. Van Ploeg has immersed herself in the world of children and teens with autism learning about their daily lives at school and at home. Her intensive study of high-functioning autism has made her both an expert and an innovator in the treatment programs she recommends to parents and teachers. Her insights about the unusual traits of autism are complex and often profound, but her suggestions for families have an encouraging simplicity and practicality.
When asked about the students she sees, Ver Ploeg says they experience many problems. For example, a very bright student was brought to her after being expelled for the last six weeks of school. It was the third year in a row he had incurred expulsion. For these students, frustration often mounts because they do not cope well with stress. Many of the stresses they face involve their inability to read social cues, and, consequently, they make social mistakes and are often bullied.
Instead of seeing students with autism as indifferent to their social ineptitude, Ver Ploeg says that children with Asperger’s as young as eight years old suffer an agony of loneliness. One eight-year-old told her, “I can’t make friends. I don’t have friends.” It is only later, as these children grow older, she sees them make an adjustment and adapt to the lack of a normal social life. She is certain that at every age they care very strongly for others, even though they often have great difficulty expressing their feelings.
The School Environment
Schools can exacerbate these problems, but sometimes they help alleviate some of the difficulties children and teens with autism face. Ver Ploeg tells the story of a young boy who was one of 800 students in a gym – being supervised by just one teacher. A large group of boys started bullying the boy, teasing him about why he was hiding in the corner. Finally, he picked up a chunk of broken concrete and threw it at them. He was punished and sent to Ver Ploeg for counseling. The bullies didn’t face any consequences.
Clearly, that particular school was unhelpful and probably should have dealt with the incident very differently. Ver Ploeg says a simple hall pass, allowing the child with autism to remove himself from what must have seemed a threatening and confusing situation, could have solved the problem on that day. Hall passes, provided as an outlet for times of social stress, offer a simple and practical solution.
Some smaller schools, such as the rural schools Ver Ploeg works with in Alaska, have fewer problems because they practice an ethic of inclusion. Because all students and teachers know each other (and perhaps in part because of local cultures emphasizing community) there is more acceptance. Students get used to someone behaving differently and value the person for who they are. In these kinds of schools with inclusion settings, bullying is addressed by the whole group. Children may even explain the situation to each other. The inclusion promotes acceptance that fosters healthier relationships.
Diagnosing students with autism spectrum disorder and then designing a program to meet their needs can challenge the creativity of teachers and specialists. Autism diagnoses are far from clear-cut; there are quite a few wrong diagnoses, and sometimes even correct diagnoses are a matter of degree rather than absolute certainty. Ver Ploeg looks for a combination of factors, including physical awkwardness, such as walking without swinging the arms or an unnatural gait, poor handwriting, lack of eye contact, nonverbal learning disabilities, and the presence of more social problems than most children have. Often other members of the near or extended family have autism or related symptoms or behavior patterns.
The label, “Autism Spectrum Disorder”, can be upsetting for a family, but can help a child get much needed services. She has seen a rise in autism diagnoses in the past few years, as the condition has gained recognition, and perhaps due to other factors.
In a new book, Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker argues his research shows rather than an autism epidemic, there has simply been a dramatic shift in the effectiveness of diagnoses for autism spectrum disorders. This includes an increase in diagnoses for milder conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome. But Ver Ploeg points out the research that locates Asperger’s on the autism spectrum is itself shaky. While some Asperger’s Syndrome symptoms seem similar to symptoms of classic autism, Ver Ploeg notes there is no final conclusion that Asperger’s is actually part of the spectrum. In fact, she argues, Asperger’s students often show true emotional connectedness, including an ability to empathize that is less characteristic of autism.
The difficulties that students with Asperger’s Syndrome face are tied to perceptual problems with nonverbal communication as well as problems with their ability to draw social inferences. These symptoms surface more than the underlying emotional disconnection associated with classic autism.
Regardless of whether there is a rising epidemic of high-functioning autism or simply a greater number of correct diagnoses, schools must provide adequate programming enabling these children to learn and thrive. While Ver Ploeg reserves judgment on whether Asperger’s Syndrome is truly a form of autism, she recognizes that the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis helps ensure that adequate services reach these children.
School Programs for Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism
The best school programs honor all students’ needs, including the students with autism. That may mean, for Asperger’s students, bypassing much of the regular curriculum and focusing on areas that are interesting and intellectually stimulating. If school is fun and challenging for these students, and they have opportunities to share their special interests, they will do better academically and socially. Because many students with high-functioning autism are also very bright, the school may have to make extra efforts to meet their needs academically. For example, Ver Ploeg took one student to a high school algebra class every day for an hour when the child was still in elementary school.
Social skills training can be even more of a challenge for regular school settings. Several approaches can work well, including teaching problem-solving methods, weekly social skills training sessions, and videotaping students so they can gradually make adjustments to their social behavior.
Treating sensory integration issues may also be important for many children and teens with autism. For them to adjust fully to the classroom, it often helps to allow these students to move away from a bright window or to wear headphones or dark glasses. Parents should be fully involved in learning about their children’s needs in school and should meet with school personnel during the IEP and as part of any counseling programs offered to children with autism and their families.
The Home Environment
The home environment can also help or hinder the child or teen with autism. Ver Ploeg says she has seen some wonderful homes where children find both unconditional love and firm boundaries providing necessary structure to their lives. She illustrates her point with a story about a family she knows. When she talks to the father, he says of his son, “Oh, we think he is wonderful – sure he’s different from other kids, but he’s our boy.” This family is very structured, sticks to a schedule with their son’s activities, and warns him if changes are coming up. They drive him to regular after-school classes for physical activities such as swimming. The family members pour a lot of energy and love into this child. At the same time, however, they provide him with lots of structure. It can be a challenge for families to be so supportive, but the effort pays off. Some home environments are so well adjusted for the child that the high-functioning autism is hardly noticed.
One of the most important ways parents can be supportive – and bridge the distance between school and home – is to organize play dates when the parent can be present to help facilitate social interactions. Visits from friends seem to work best for children with autism when a parent is involved and provides highly structured activities all the children will enjoy. For example, volunteering to be a scout leader is one way to ensure a regular flow of such activities in a structured social environment.
If parents, teachers, and school personnel find ways to honor and respect the special needs and abilities of children with autism, these children will have a good chance of finding their way in the adult world.
In schools, honoring and respecting ensuring acceptance for their differences as well as supportive programming for their unique needs and abilities. In the case of the parents, Ver Ploeg stresses the importance of unconditional love and providing a structured, consistent environment even when it seems extremely difficult . Crucial early interventions help these young students love education and have confidence about the future. While many go through a rough period during adolescence, with support, they can often emerge into a future with a shining array of possibilities.
By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.