April is Autism Acceptance Month! Meet Kacen – a student with autism who is thriving thanks to a partnership between his school and Central Rivers AEA

From left to right: Shane Wilson (4th grade teacher), Catherine Bockenstedt (Paraprofessional), Brenda Day (Paraprofessional), Regan Gritsch (Special education teacher), Mary Sherwood (Principal) (not pictured-- Jennifer Cline) Front: Kacen DeWitte (student)April is Autism Acceptance Month! Why acceptance vs. awareness? Acceptance is about moving beyond the idea of awareness – you want acceptance and support, not isolation. Like everyone, those with autism want acceptance for both their strengths and weaknesses.

Kacen DeWitte started at Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom (BGM) as a kindergartener. He came in with a behavior, reading and communication goal per an Individualized Education Program (IEP). His behaviors significantly impacted his learning in the general education setting as he had difficulty sustaining attention, transitioning and complying with adult directions. Kacen was often running out of the classroom and his physical behavior was a safety concern.

The IEP team, along with Central Rivers Area Education Agency (CRAEA) Special Education Consultant, Jennifer Cline, agreed that for Kacen’s safety, the special education setting was the best place for his learning to grow. His parents were very supportive and wanted what was best for Kacen throughout the entire process. “We worked together as a team to put the right supports in place in order to help him be successful,” said BGM Elementary special education teacher, Regan Gritsch. “As the right supports were put into place, Kacen became more able to participate in the general education setting independently. Midway through his third-grade year, the IEP team agreed Kacen no longer needed this extra support.”

“BGM Elementary School principal, Mary Sherwood, has created an environment of acceptance and support for all students,” said Cline. “This can be seen through Kacen’s team being committed to his success since day one. Regan took it upon herself to learn and find ways to support Kacen and his family navigate his challenges in both education and home settings. She has educated his teachers year-to-year on how to support him and taught Kacen skills that are allowing for his increased independence.”

Kacen participates fully in the general education setting now as a fourth-grade student. He does not have paraprofessional support for behavior and is continuing to need less behavioral instruction and support. One of the most effective strategies that has worked for Kacen is using a number of visuals throughout his day. “These included visual schedules and boundary lines taped on the floor within his work area,” said Gritsch. “Truly understanding Kacen and his needs and meeting him where he was at helped pave the way for our successful strategies.”

Gritsch says the partnership between CRAEA, specifically with Jennifer Cline and BGM’s IEP team, made all of the difference. “I have learned so much through working with Jennifer. Taking the autism class she taught provided coaching for us that helped implement the right supports for Kacen.”

Cline’s expertise and help within this area was a huge asset to the IEP team and the success of Kacen. “She was integral in helping brainstorm, teach and implement the strategies and approaches that were put in place for Kacen,” said Gritsch. “I was lucky enough that she was my AEA representative, as well as the teacher of the autism class. I got to work with her weekly and knew I could always reach out to her, whenever I needed support.”

Gritsch explains how Kacen’s parents were also a huge part of his success because they have always had open communication with the BGM team and were willing to put the correct supports in place at both school and home, which has made all of the difference. “Kacen’s general education teachers from kindergarten through fourth grade have also been integral pieces of his success because they have included Kacen at each step and implemented what worked best for him.”

“As the elementary principal, sharing success stories like Kacen’s is what helps us realize why we are in education,” said Sherwood. “It was truly a team effort of all the experts involved – Jennifer Cline, Regan Gritsch, his classroom teachers, his paras who implemented and followed any plans/accommodations we wanted to try, his parents who know him best, and, of course, Kacen!” The IEP team knew it would take time and patience, but they all worked together to help meet Kacen’s needs and help him become successful. “The staff at BGM embrace Kacen’s strengths and he is thriving,” said Cline. “His story is about an incredible boy that wouldn’t be where he is without the full support and understanding of all the adults and his peers he encounters daily. He’s done the hard work, others have just paved the way so he could understand the work!”

For more information on autism or how CRAEA can support your district’s needs, contact Jennifer Cline, CRAEA Special Education Consultant/Autism Specialist at jcline@centralriversaea.org or Mary Sherwood, BGM Elementary Principal at msherwood@brooklyn.k12.ia.us.