Early education helps autistic child thrive in school
BY NOUR HABIB World Scene Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2012
4/26/12 at 3:22 AM
When Tari Blankenship first met 3-year-old Cayden Poindexter, she was a little intimidated.
It was Blankenship's first year teaching students with special needs, and Cayden was the first child with autism she encountered.
"I knew zero about autism," she said. Her work with Cayden was often trial-and-error.
That was about five years ago. Now, Blankenship continues to teach special-education classes at Coweta Public Schools and has much more experience accommodating each of her students' needs.
And, although she no longer teaches Cayden, they are both still a big part of each others' lives.
Tiffany Poindexter, Cayden's mother, said Blankenship has become a family friend.
She still remembers her own apprehension about Blankenship.
"I knew that she didn't have a lot of special-education experience, and I was a little nervous when I first found out that she was going to be his teacher," Poindexter said.
But the two learned together, and Cayden was their teacher.
Teaching and learning
Poindexter said she can't imagine Cayden's development without Blankenship, who taught him for three years.
Cayden was diagnosed with autism at age 3. He had not been talking, nor was he responding to his name. He also did not like being touched, did not make eye contact with others and frequently flapped his arms - a form of stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, that individuals with autism often exhibit.
According to the National Institutes of Health, autism is a neurodevelopment disorder "characterized by social impairments; communication difficulties; and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior."
Immediately after his diagnosis, Cayden's parents enrolled him in a pre-kindergarten program for children with developmental delays. Poindexter said early intervention is important for children with autism.
"The earlier you can get them in a program and socialize them with other kids, the better they are," she said.
Although Cayden spent three months in school before finally speaking with Blankenship, the 8-year-old has moved beyond that. Now, he interacts with others, excels at school and makes friends.
As he went up to two children at a Coweta park during an afternoon last week, Poindexter watched and shook her head in amazement.
"He used to never go up and try to play with kids," she said. "He's really come a long way."
Importance of adaptation
Cayden is now in second grade. He's won multiple school awards and was named the top accelerated reader in first grade last year, among regular-education and special-education classes.
"I was afraid he would never be able to read," Poindexter said.
Cayden attends regular-education classes for most of the day, and he is pulled out only for special reading, language arts and math classes.
Although he's doing well academically and has some friends, Poindexter said it is still a struggle.
For example, Cayden has trouble with transitions. While he was in her class, Blankenship developed a "first-and-next" routine with Cayden to help him grasp his class schedule. It worked so well, Poindexter began using it at home.
When Cayden was moving to first grade with a new teacher, Blankenship wrote a book for Cayden about the move, complete with illustrations, to help him get ready.
Poindexter said it is ways like these that Blankenship went beyond being a teacher.
Blankenship describes her strategy with Cayden as letting him "do his thing."
"She adapted to him, instead of making him adapt to her," Poindexter said.
Blankenship said she thinks this is the way all teachers, especially those who work with kids with special needs, should teach.
"You have to learn your kids - you can't just run off a worksheet," she said.
April is autism awareness month.
"A lot of people hear autism, and because they don't know about it, it scares them," Blankenship said.
She and Poindexter encourage parents whose children are newly diagnosed to get educated as soon and as fast as possible.
Blankenship said there are many resources locally, including the Tulsa Autism Center, which is hosting an autism walk next month.
Early intervention is key, Poindexter said.
"From age 3 to 8, he's grown so much," she said. "Maybe by the time he grows from 8 to 16, you won't be able to tell he has autism."
What: Autism run hosted by the Tulsa
Where: Hunter Park, 5804 E. 91st St.
When: 8 a.m. May 19
For more: tulsaworld.com/tulsaautism
Original Print Headline: Thriving with autism
Nour Habib 918-581-8369
Tari Blankenship and her former student, 8-year-old Cayden Poindexter, spend time together at a park in Coweta. Blankenship's education work and guidance has allowed Cayden, who is autistic, to thrive in school. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Cayden Poindexter plays at the park with Lucy Jo Blankenship, 9, the daughter of Poindexter's former teacher, Tari Blankenship. "He used to never go up and try to play with kids," says Poindexter's mother, Tiffany. "He's really come a long way."