How students with autism are “nested” in NYC schools: A Q&A with Dorothy Siegel

How can public schools provide a supportive learning environment for all students — including those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

ASD Nest is New York City’s school inclusion program for higher-functioning students with ASD. “Nested” within supportive neighborhood schools, the ASD Nest program helps children learn how to function well academically, behaviorally, and socially, providing a therapeutic environment within a grade-appropriate academic environment.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we spoke with Dorothy Siegel, director of Steinhardt’s ASD Nest Support Project and a long-time advocate for special education reform. Siegel’s work in the early 1990s with District 15 in Brooklyn led to the creation of a full-time inclusion model in New York City’s schools, which grew into ASD Nest in 2003 under the guidance of now-Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Since then, Siegel has partnered with the New York City Department of Education and Hunter College to develop, implement, and replicate the ASD Nest Program in public schools. As of this school year, ASD Nest serves more than 1,000 New York City students with autism who are fully included with 3,000 typically developing peers.

You helped develop the ASD Nest program for New York City schools in 2003. What was the need for this type of program?
Up until the Nest program began, 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 weren’t trained to understand how to teach them and where they struggled integrating with their typically developing peers. These children were not integrated into their schools or communities and generally had poor outcomes. In 2001, I asked then District 15 Superintendent Carmen Farina, “Why can’t children with autism who can do grade-level academic work be educated in their neighborhood school?” She said, “Let’s form a study group.” Out of that study group grew a team of District 15 educators – along with me and my partner Prof. Shirley Cohen of Hunter College – who conceptualized an 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. But we knew we had to address the “whole child,” or these children wouldn’t succeed.

Why an integrated co-teaching or inclusion model for students with autism?
Back in the early 1990s, District 15 had a motto: “Children are more alike than they are different; they should be educated together whenever possible.” That belief led to a collaboration of District 15 with District 75 to create The Children’s School, a total inclusion school, and later to the proliferation of classrooms based on the “collaborative co-teaching” (now “integrated co-teaching” or ICT) model that mixed general and special education students in a co-taught classroom. Research has shown that children who are taught in such classrooms with peers who have a wide variety of strengths and challenges grow academically, socially, and emotionally. Because well-run ICT classrooms have two highly trained teachers, every child gets the individualized attention they need and the opportunities to shine that foster their well-being.

One key element of the ASD Nest elementary model is the 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 evidence-based practices used in Nest. The ICT classroom is the core of the collaborative multidisciplinary approach Nest embraces.

How does Steinhardt’s ASD Nest Support Project – which you co-direct – help and develop classroom teachers?
First, we help principals understand what kind of teachers and therapists would make good Nest educators. Once the principal selects Nest staff, they attend training at Hunter College that we help coordinate and that the Department of Education pays for. The training consists of one three-credit course on the basics of autism and the strategies used in the Nest program, and a second three-credit course on behavior theory and its application to children with autism. Throughout teachers’ time working in Nest, we provide continual support through direct and indirect on-site consultation and professional development. We also train outstanding teachers in each school to become “ASD Nest coaches.” We work with them to understand how to support their colleagues in determining the best strategies to work with each child. Our Middle/High School Task Force, consisting of one or more teachers from every Nest middle and high school, plays a fundamental role in developing and refining the Nest model in those grades, to ensure that Nest is thoroughly integrated into the fabric of their schools.

Finally, the Department of Education 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 for staff as they 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.

You’ve seen ASD Nest expand to more than 240 New York City classrooms – and even to two classrooms in Denmark this year. Do you see even more growth for ASD Nest?
There will be four new schools next year (for a total of 39), 20 more classrooms and about 100 more students. The Department of Education determines where there is a need and identifies a school in that neighborhood to host Nest. We at NYU are contracted by the Department of Education to work with the new schools to help them learn how to fully embrace Nest practices and philosophy. Most Nest schools we work with have enthusiastically embraced Nest and spread its precepts throughout their buildings. Principals like the comprehensiveness of the Nest model, and the way it shows staff how to educate a much wider range of learners than they were able to in the past. We also run workshops for the Department of Education for teachers, therapists and administrators of non-Nest schools, who learn Nest practices they can use with autistic children in their schools.

The ASD Nest model was designed to work pretty much anywhere, and could conceivably be successful in a wide variety of school districts around the U.S. and the world. My colleagues and I at the ASD Nest Support Project have our plates full supporting our current Nest schools, but we would love to see the model spread further. However, were we to take on an additional school or district, we’d expect it to truly commit to our belief system and be willing to put the effort into changing their attitudes and practices to one of full inclusion and all that that implies. We are considering other options to bring our team’s expertise to a much wider audience, including the possibility of online trainings.