Before the advent of the ASD Nest program parents of autistic children in New York City had two choices: a District 75 school for children with severe disabilities, where basic curriculum took a back seat to therapeutic services; or a neighborhood school where teachers didn’t understand how to teach their children or children on the spectrum and where they struggled to integrate with their typically developing peers. These children were not integrated into their schools or communities and generally had poor outcomes. In 2002, then District 15 Superintendent Carmen Farina appointed a study group to answer the question “Why can’t children with autism who can do grade-level academic work be educated in their neighborhood schools?” A team of District 15 educators – along with Dorothy Siegel of NYU and Prof. Shirley Cohen of Hunter College – conceptualized a fully inclusive program in a neighborhood school that would provide what these children needed. The goal of the program was and is to help children with ASD learn how to function well academically, behaviorally, and socially in school and in their community. That goal was unusual because schools usually think of their mission as limited to providing academic instruction. The team understood the need to address the “whole child,” or these children wouldn’t succeed.
One key element of the ASD Nest elementary model is the Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom – in this case with only four autistic children and eight to sixteen general ed children, depending on the grade. The Nest co-teachers, as well as all other professionals who work with these children, are trained at Hunter College – and supported by the NYU ASD Nest Support team – on the implementation of evidence-based practices used in Nest. The ICT classroom is the core of the collaborative multidisciplinary approach Nest embraces.
The Department of Education provides three more key elements: six graduate credits of training at Hunter College on autism and strategies used in the Nest program. Second, they provide NYU with funding for continual support of educators through direct and indirect on-site consultation and professional development.Third, the DoE provides Nest schools with funding for collaborative multi-disciplinary weekly team meetings, attended by every Nest teacher and therapist. This is a powerful learning tool as staff develop plans for each Nest child that are consistent across every setting and at all times. Eventually, the Nest team in an experienced Nest school becomes VERY smart about what works with individual children with autism.