Longform

Communication Breakdown

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Jones pressed for the CDE-appointed task force members to incorporate ABA into the educational guidelines, but he says they ignored his requests and failed to supply him with evidence that the educational programs they were considering were working. He accuses the autism experts on the task force of trying to advance their own programs.

Because he felt the task force was going nowhere, Jones stepped down. In his resignation letter, dated October 7, 1999, he wrote, "My call for hard evidence regarding reasonable educational benefit when considering programs and trainers has more than once been silenced by individual Task Force members who are employed by the Colorado Department of Education."

In the meantime, education experts and parents in New York were publishing a three-book series of guidelines for educating children with autism -- with ABA as the recommended method. CDE task force chair Robin Brewer, who is also the principal consultant in the CDE's special-education unit, says that because Colorado is a local-control state, the state education department is legally prohibited from mandating any one method. All it can do is recommend guidelines; individual school districts are free to choose which programs to offer.

The task force's primary goal is to produce the guidelines, which Brewer says will be available in schools next fall, but the task force members are also holding training sessions for teachers, and they hope to match specialists with schools to assist teachers in delivering new educational strategies. Last January the task force brought together national experts on various educational methods at a conference attended by 500 parents and educators. Brewer hopes the next conference, which will be held in February, will attract 750 people. "I would hope that changes have been made in programming for kids based on that conference," says Brewer, who admits she has not had time to follow up to see what, if any, improvements have been made since then.

Brewer says she's baffled by Jones's departure from the CDE task force. "The last time I spoke to him, he was going to bring the president of the ABA Association to be the keynote speaker at February's conference; the next communication I got was his resignation letter," she says. "We think ABA is a viable option. We considered that as much as any other method. There are some things I don't like about ABA, but there are also some aspects of TEACCH, in the Cherry Creek School District, that I don't like. We don't want only one technique; that's not what our job is. We want teachers to develop an eclectic methodology. We don't think one size fits all."

But Jones felt as though other members of the task force, including Phil Strain, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Colorado at Denver, were working against him. Strain served as a consultant for the Boulder Valley School District during Jones's legal battle and was paid by the district to recommend programs for Jack -- and ABA wasn't one of them.

Strain is the founder of LEAP (Learning Experiences -- An Alternative Program for Preschoolers and Parents), an education method that employs an ABA technique called incidental teaching. The strategy behind LEAP is to teach children when they are already engaged in something that interests them. "Once they are involved in an activity, that becomes an occasion for teaching. For instance, if a kid begins playing with paint on an easel, that becomes the context for teaching colors and shapes," says Strain, who has established LEAP preschools worldwide since 1981; the Douglas County LEAP preschool is the only one in Colorado.

Strain says the primary difference between his form of ABA and the one Jones uses is "who has the control over the instructional agenda. In a lot of teaching programs, adults decide what to teach and when; in our program, the notion is that we want to capitalize on kids' interests -- to look for those occasions when kids have initiated contact with people or objects and use those as opportunities to teach important skills."

Jones felt Strain's role as consultant for Boulder Valley conflicted with his role on the task force.

Because experts on the task force -- like Strain -- already favored certain teaching methods, Jones says his recommendations for ABA were never seriously considered. Instead, he says, he was regarded by fellow members as an extremist. "I was seen as a parent with an ax to grind," Jones says. "I didn't have an ax to grind; I had an investment in my son's education."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon