By Debra Hosseini
The first thing we notice when Kevin comes home to visit after two months at the Monarch Center for Autism is how polite he’s become.
“Yes, thank you,” he says when we offer him some chips. The word “please” is now embedded in his vocabulary.
He also looks healthier. He’s lost a little weight and his body is toned.
“The boys seem to lose weight here,” the psychiatrist Dr. Ivy Boyle says. “The girls gain weight for some reason.”
When the Director of the Santa Barbara SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area) first suggested Kevin attend the Monarch Autism Center in Cleveland, I was alarmed at the lack of proximity. Kevin was happy attending Santa Barbara City College, working at Giovanni’s Pizza, and he liked Eric who helped out in his class.
Kevin expressed in no uncertain terms that he didn’t understand why he was being asked to move from his sunny Southern California hometown to snow-bound Cleveland. We were discouraged when we googled the weather and found many days in January had single-digit highs in numbers that can be mistaken for shoe sizes.
Years ago, when Kevin was still in junior high, a fellow autism dad arranged a “chess date” between his son and Kevin at Borders bookstore in Santa Barbara. The dad had waged an expensive war against a local school district and had won the prize – a placement at Monarch Center for Autism.
“You have to get your son in this program,” he told me then. “Its done wonders for Jake.” During the chess game, I was impressed by Jake’s manners, social skills, and initiation in conversations that were about my interests, not only his.
“Jake’s going to graduate this year with a high school diploma,” his dad beamed. At that time, I didn’t have the fortitude to launch an expensive legal battle with Kevin’s school for a more appropriate placement.
It’s funny how the universe works…
After the initial shock of realizing there are a lack of residential programs for transition-aged youth in California (and any that are here have long waiting lists), I was excited to realize that Monarch has a stellar reputation.
I called a Dad in Los Angeles whose son had attended the program. He gave the Center rave reviews.
“I hired an educational consultant to investigate schools in the United States,” L.A. dad told me, “and this was one of three they recommended. We had our son at another program which on the outside looked great, but we weren’t satisfied with the lack of supervision. The difference between Monarch and the other program is the exceptional staff. They show a genuine concern for each and every student.”
I was convinced.
Months earlier, I had envisioned Kevin in a loving, compassionate school where he could make new friends and learn new skills. This is when I wrote a blog about special education.
I had a natural affinity for the name Monarch because of the butterfly imagery. The monarch butterfly is used as a logo for another of my favorite programs Hidden Wings in Solvang, which Kevin participates in.
Butterflies are symbols of rebirth, regeneration, and metamorphosis. Kevin has painted many monarchs. I like to imagine Kevin is now emerging from the Chrysalis stage. This program allows him to struggle and ultimately break free so he can fly.
Upon return to Cleveland from Spring Break, Kurt and I toured the parts of the Center that Kevin participates in. Monarch sits on a beautiful 32-acre campus filled with traditional brick buildings.
Kurt had me take this picture.
Kevin’s program has two components – a residential component and a school (MTEP) where he learns real-life skills. The school and residential program use a consistent model and communicate on a regular basis.
We visited the residential program, which has 12 male students, each with their own private rooms. I noticed Kevin had each of the drawers of his dresser labelled – “socks, underwear, shirts, pants.” The students wash their own clothes and are responsible for putting them away in the proper places. They choose how to decorate their room. Kevin had some art work he had completed on his walls.
We left Kevin and came back later to pick him up for dinner. I was encouraged he was playing basketball outside with a staff member and another resident. The workers had told me this was one of the first beautiful days after one of Cleveland’s longest and coldest winters.
The next day we had a meeting with Kevin’s teachers at school followed by a tour. Tracie, the main teacher, explained the importance of Kevin’s binder which he is to carry at all time. The first thing in the binder is Kevin’s behavior contract. Most of the items on the contract are about respecting other’s space and using words in appropriate ways.
In his binder he also has a chart where he can identify and regulate his moods. The chart goes from 0 (feeling calm) to 10 (feeling like its the end of his life). Kevin has strategies for times when he feels he’s losing control. One of the strategies is to write his feelings and then let them go. “My thoughts are energy and I can put that energy into words,” is the reminder on the page.
Also in the binder is information on Kevin’s economy. Kevin earns tokens and real money for following rules and using appropriate language. The money he can spend at a store in the school or on shopping expeditions in the community. If he earns enough tokens he can purchase a meal at one of his favorite eateries. That would be Chipotles right now.
What I was most impressed with is the amount of structure Monarch has provided for students like Kevin.
The students practice a job before going out into the work force. The Center includes a mirror with instructions about combing their hair and a time clock which they punch in and out for lunch.
They also have a cafeteria with prompts at each table about how to start a conversation. Visual prompts are everywhere throughout the school.
Kevin is working a couple times a week at a restaurant in a retirement community. Casey, one of his teachers has expressed how pleased he is about Kevin’s progress at that job. The restaurant is Kosher and Kevin has learned to separate the foods. His speed is timed and charted. Kevin’s made significant progress.
We then went to the Occupational Therapy room. Kevin said he liked to bounce on the balls. They also had another room with a bed and a weighted blanket for students to take a break when feeling overwhelmed.
We toured the laundry room complete with a washing machine and dryer and visual prompts about how to use them. Here they practice folding clothes and putting them on hangars. In another room students learn how to make a bed properly and put away their clothes in a full-scale dresser.
The school has a kitchen with a visual curriculum for cooking. Throughout the kitchen are visual prompts and safety rules.
The students make cookies and distribute them to different places on campus.
They have a garden, a computer room, a place to make soap, and an art room. All the rooms and walls of the schools have visual prompts.
They sell the soap they make on the Monarch website.
A postcard project was displayed on the walls. Kevin picked his favorite artist Vincent Van Gogh.
The students also learn how to sort mail by zip code.
Students spend no time being idle. Even when waiting for their parents to pick them up they keep busy.
Kurt didn’t take the tour with us. Instead he corners Dave, one of Kevin’s teachers who is teaching Kevin how to cook Top Ramen. Kurt lived on Top Ramen for a time in his life.
Kurt’s Asperger’s is apparent.
“In 1954, this guy in Japan fried some soba noodles and then put an alkaline wash on the noodles. The noodles didn’t stick together. They remained firm upon cooking. This revolutionalized the noodle industry and was able to feed the masses in Japan.”
Dave who has been listening to Kurt for the last half-hour says, “That’s interesting. Innovation..”
Kurt queries, “Does Kevin eat Top Ramen with a fork or chopsticks?”
“A fork,” Dave replies.
“Do you know why the Chinese eat with chopsticks?” Kurt asks.
Before Dave can answer, Kurt says “Chopsticks are a non-violent alternative to knives. Confuscious, as a vegetarian, believed sharp utensils reminded eaters of the slaughterhouse. He believed knives’ sharp points evoked violence and warfare, and were the antithesis to the mood we should have when consuming our meals.”
“That’s interesting,” Dave says looking a little glazed…
Once back in California, Kurt looks through some of Kevin’s protocols.
He picks up the one about telling jokes.
“Don’t interrupt; don’t retell a joke you’ve already told over and over again; notice eye contact…”
“I can use this one,” he says.
“Yep,” I say.
I guess we all can use prompts and reminders to help us communicate more effectively.
We’re grateful Kevin is in a program that understands autism and the importance of structure, breaking tasks down into manageable steps, visual prompts, keeping students occupied, and repetition towards mastering skills.
Last week I visited another wonderful program for young adults in Ventura which utilizes a comprehensive curriculum and scaffolding techniques towards mastery. Stay tuned…