Deborah Fisher taught George W. Nebinger’s first and only autistic support classroom 22 years ago. Since autism wasn’t understood as well as it is today, few doctors offered the diagnosis. There were only three children in Fisher’s class.
Today, almost the entire second floor is dedicated to learning support at Nebinger. Four classrooms are specifically for autism support, and teachers, teaching assistants and therapeutic staff support constantly circulate the hallways with their classes. Ages range from kindergarten-age students to eighth graders about to leave Nebinger behind for high school.
“The autistic support population has just grown, and it keeps growing and growing and growing,” Fisher said. “I think when I started it was one in 199 children were autistic.”
“There are a lot more children being identified,” she added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in 110 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, which includes classic and atypical autism as well as Asperger syndrome.
Between 1991 and 2002 alone, U.S. Department of Education figures show a 1,700 percent increase in the number of students with autism.
Though Nebinger teachers said the individualized teaching style at Nebinger contributes to the success of its autistic support floor, the school stands out because of its education continuum for K-8 autistic support classrooms.
“Sometimes one school, because of a limited amount of room, might just have a K-2 autistic support class, and then those children go to another school which might only be available for another three years,” Fisher said, adding the jumping pattern often continues through high school.
A policy deemed the “automatic autism transfer policy” reportedly mandates students with autism transfer to other schools during their elementary years, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
This is not the case at Nebinger.
“Here [at Nebinger], we mirror the regular [education] as far as K-8 so children can stay here nine of their educational years, which is unusual,” Fisher said.
In response to a complaint issued over the summer, the school district asserted, “there is no ‘automatic autism transfer policy.’”
“To the extent possible,” the statement reads, “children with disabilities remain in their assigned school until they transition, with their non-disabled peers, to middle or high school.”
If autistic students do not have to transfer, continuity can help them prosper.
Larry Bones, who currently substitute teaches the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade autistic support classroom, said some of his students already know him from when they were younger.
“I’ve been here a number of times for stretches for other teachers, so I know all the students,” Bones said, noting that since students come to Nebinger at a young age and stay together until eighth grade, by the time they get to high school they’ve reached a level of social discipline not as common if children with autism are shuffled.
“The [students] are seeing the same people since they were little, so you don’t have those problems related to discipline,” Bones added. “Teachers here do very well with identifying flaws early so they don’t develop into something bigger later on.”
Noting autistic support children should have the same rights as non-autistic students, Fisher said Nebinger’s program is the “really what it should be,” though she acknowledged space issues within schools.
Roughly 20 percent of Nebinger’s student population is comprised of students with disabilities, but the school is also under-enrolled.
Other ways Nebinger stays ahead of the curve on its autistic support floor is the school’s music program. If schools within the School District of Philadelphia do have music or art programs, most schools only have one.
Available to all students, Fisher and Bones agreed it helps children with autism tremendously in the classroom.
“The students who perform with music do very, very well, and I’m convinced it helps them improve their classroom abilities, and it helps them later on in high school,” Bones said.
“[Music has] been a nice avenue for students who play instruments,” Fisher said.
One of Fisher’s students even went on to attend the Girard Academic Music Program high school at 22nd and Ritner streets, she said.
Regardless of Nebinger’s programs and set up, Fisher said she can’t imagine teaching a regular education classroom.
“These kids are wonderful,” she said. “They’re not jaded. They just have this wonderful innocence about them, and they would never think to be mean to anybody.”