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Autism program at Shadow Mountain gives students real-life skills


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  • Becky Kelbaugh/Paradise Valley Unified School District

A Student Practicing Skills In The Ability Lab At Shadow Mountain High School. Photo Courtesy PVSchools

Paradise Valley Unified School District and Shadow Mountain High School have implemented a new resource for students with autism that helps them learn basic and necessary life skills such as safety and taking care of a home.

The Ability Lab is an open-wall “apartment” with a fully equipped kitchen, furnished bedroom, dining room and living room, as well as a laundry room with accessible appliances, which is fully contained within a classroom.

Autism program at Shadow Mountain gives students real-life skills SMHS-Ability-Lab-5Inside

A student practicing skills in The Ability Lab at Shadow Mountain High School. Photo courtesy PVSchools

“Since independence for students with autism may look very different depending on the particular abilities of the student, we wanted to prepare students to live independently, to the best of their ability, hence the name, Ability Lab,” said Kathleen Alexander-Blue, assistant principal.

Students with autism at Shadow Mountain High School practice everyday life skills in the Ability Lab. The curriculum includes task identification, hazard identification, as well as everyday life skills such as loading a dishwasher properly and making sure to turn off the stove when finished with cooking.

“A parent mentioned that her son left the bath water running and saw that the room was flooding; however, the teenager lacked an appropriate process for indicating the situation was serious. Since many of our students with autism are nonverbal, we work with them on recognizing a hazard and practice how to alert others to mitigate hazards,” said Ms. Alexander-Blue.

Ability Lab

The Ability Lab at Shadow Mountain follows the Structured Teaching Model and is the basis of all instruction in the Autism program.

Leilani Jacobson, a lead teacher, uses different techniques to make learning more authentic and meaningful for her students.

“I will sprinkle paper shreddings in the living room on the carpet and something like popcorn on the kitchen floor.  The student has to identify that there is a task that needs to be done such as vacuuming or sweeping, then follow the protocol. We also use picture series that show the right steps for the students to take. It makes it easy to learn the skill,” said Mrs. Jacobson. “Working in the lab and using the Structured Teaching Model has been especially beneficial in helping our students transfer the skills they learn at school to their home environment, which is one of the challenges of autism.”

The Ability Lab opened mid-year during the 2014-15 school year.

“It’s my first year working in the program, and the Ability Lab is a dream come true for teachers who work with students who have autism,” said Tracey Vicario, a teacher with the program.

Students have helped to make the Ability Lab feel like home by decorating with framed pictures of their artwork from Unified Art, which is an innovative class designed for students with autism where they can take art with typical peers who are interested in working with and helping the students in art curriculum activities.

While the Ability Lab was built for the new Autism program at Shadow Mountain High School, the lab is available for Basic Life Skills and Pathways (Adult Transition) programs.