A model autistic learning support program in the Tamaqua Area School District is producing positive results.

The program, known as the Competent Learner Model (CLM), was introduced into the district with the 2008-09 school year.

Vicki Tucci, the program's founder, visited Rush Elementary School in Hometown in May from her home in California to discuss CLM implementation with Tamaqua Area and commonwealth special education professionals.

Anne Katona-Linn, a consultant for PaTTAN (Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network), the Pa. Department of Education's initiative that deals with autism and other educational disorders, visited the Tamaqua Area Board of Education's committee meetings Tuesday evening to share some of the results of the CLM program.

Also in attendance were Rebecca Luna, the district's autism support instructor, Diane Perbetsky, the district's speech pathologist, and Dan and Becky Coccio of Hometown, whose daughter, Brooklyn, 10, attends Rush Elementary and is utilizing the program.

Autism Spectrum Disorders, as defined by the PaTTAN website, are a series of complex neurological developmental disabilities, characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and unusual or severely limited activities, interests and behaviors.

Two video presentations were shown, with narration from Cathy Scutta, the leader for PaTTAN's autism initiative. The videos included case studies and demonstrated how the CLM program are utilized.

It was noted that no two individuals with autism are exactly the same. Katona-Linn said autism is becoming more prevalent, with about one in 100 students having some form or another.

Tucci's model is centered around participation, behavior and communication, as well as seven core skills, which form the basis of all learning. It seeks to provide staff training, so that all instructors are on the same page and agree on methodology, and develops instructors as coaches to work with the students in critical areas.

The model is applicable to all ages and ranges of learning and has helped autistic students in areas such as learning to follow directions, participation, language progression and functional speech and vocabulary development.

By using incremental teaching steps, it is found that the most progress has been made, with the goal of having the students combine skills in the environments they find themselves in in order to be successful.

The CLM also had shown to produce a reduction of behavioral episodes with autistic students, because it works with them at where they are in their development and moves them forward.

When Luna started working with Brooklyn last year, her communication was limited. "She has done a 180," related Luna. "She now participates with teachers and her peers."

Luna explained Brooklyn now knows close to 70 signs, is more vocal, labels things and is approximating words. Her behavior has also improved; last year Brooklyn averaged about 400 incidents a month, which has been cut to about 40 for the entire school year thus far.

"She's like a different child," added Luna, who mentioned she is working the CLM program with other students who have had paraprofessionals with them all the time in order to teach them to be able to function without the adult.

Katona-Linn compared an autistic student to a dam with little holes in it. "This model fills the holes so the dam is stronger," she said.

Luna commented that the CLM has had the added benefit of carrying over into the home of the students as well.

"Families say we have given them their child back, or they have the child they never had before," added Katona-Linn.

The Coccios agreed.

"It's for real," said Dan Coccio. "I look forward to coming home from work to see what she (Brooklyn) does."

"Before last year, she was in LifeSkills class and nothing was working," added Becky Coccio. "Now she knows more signs than I know."

Katona-Linn noted that there are currently 200 CLM classrooms and 150 coaches in Pa., with Tamaqua Area being one of the model classrooms.

Board President Larry A. Wittig questioned how the State educational funding is supporting the autistic program.

"We are helping Intermediate Units and districts develop their own internal coaches," answered Katona-Linn. The only cost is for districts to allow their staff to do upfront training."

Katona-Linn presented certificates of appreciation from the Department of Education to Luna and Perbetsky for their work with the CLM program.

Superintendent Carol Makuta mentioned that Tamaqua Area's special education program is still young, as the district took over those services from Schuylkill I.U. 29. She noted the work of Gregory Koons, the district's special education director, in developing the program.

"This is the result of decisions the board has made that allow educators to experiment and look at what programs are out there," said Makuta.