Article Reprinted with Permission from Montessori Central
By Mark Anderson
When the American Academy of Pediatrics reported this fall that one in 91 children in the U.S. now have some level of autism spectrum disorder, it highlighted the growing challenge educators face in trying to accommodate the special needs of those children.
Montessori educators share the challenge, encountering more children in their classrooms each year with special needs. And despite conventional wisdom that says the autonomy children are given in Montessori classrooms doesn’t deliver the direction and reinforcement that children on the spectrum need, Montessori is the basis for one of autism’s most successful new treatments, developed by Toronto educator and therapist Michelle Lane.
Lane’s model utilizes all the elements of the Montessori curriculum—the materials, the learning periods, the practical skills and routines—that prompt a child’s pursuit of experience and understanding. But to offset the powerful, disruptive tendencies that interrupt an autistic child’s pursuit of learning, she developed a strategy of careful observation and intervention.
Her laboratory was the Toronto Montessori School for Autism, which she founded in 2003 (the school changed its name to Lane Montessori School for Autism in 2007). Ten staff now work one-on-one at the school with children who have severe symptoms of autism.
The severity of the children’s conditions require that teachers/therapists actively direct and reinforce behaviors, Lane says. “But in our program, children are in the prepared Montessori environment. They’re learning from that, and it’s giving them the independence and confidence we want in our kids. We’re creating a transitional piece,” giving children tools that enable them to follow the Montessori curriculum and eventually enter conventional classrooms, she says.
Enriching the therapy
Lane started working with autistic children in 1993 shortly after college, where she’d earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She fell in love with the children she met and with the challenge of helping them realize more of their potential. She trained and was licensed as therapist, using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the current standard for research-based autism therapy.
And she built a successful practice working with children with autism, searching all the while for ways to keep improving the therapies she’d learned.
One shortcoming that she saw in conventional ABA treatment was that it was built on a therapeutic model, aiming more at treating a condition than nurturing learners during the sensitive periods that Montessori recognized.
“Not many behavioral therapists are teachers,” Lane says. “They’re not trained in child development. I wanted to be sure I understood that side of the child’s experience, too.”
The first suggestion that Montessori could provide a way to enrich the ABA model came from Lane’s mother, who taught for many years in traditional classrooms. As Lane explored her mother’s suggestion she began to think that Montessori could widen the learning horizons for the children she treated, and she enrolled in the teacher training program at Sheridan College, a MACTE-accredited program near Toronto.
“It literally transformed me,” Lane says.
Montessori outlined developmental opportunities and ways of learning that aligned closely with the needs of ASD children. And as Lane learned about Montessori’s early successful work with children with special needs and her commitment to understanding the specific condition of each child, she became more convinced that Montessori and ABA together could offer big benefits to those children.
That was a different conclusion than many therapists and educators had reached in the past. Children with autism generally struggle with antisocial behavior and with verbal communication, and they have a strong tendency to fall into familiar, repetitive routines. Behavioral therapists try to offset those tendencies and introduce new lessons by intervening and applying steady, external reinforcements. To many educators, though, that prescriptive, therapist-driven model seemed incompatible with Montessori.
Side-by-side with Skinner
But Lane saw core similarities in the two approaches. “One of (ABA founder) B.F.Skinner’s insights is the need to break down tasks into simple, concrete steps.” The articulation of simple steps is especially important for ASD children, “but that task analysis is something that every Montessori knows and practices, too,” Lane says.
The behavioral therapists also have a long menu of learning materials that introduce and drill intellectual concepts. Many are simple and repetitive devices, like identifying flash cards.
Montessori’s materials deliver the same lessons, but they’re hands-on and concrete, which matches the learning style of many children with autism. They’re much richer in content and more suggestive. And their physical appeal works on children with autism, too, providing an internal motivation to explore the new materials.
“The Montessori materials and lessons are so beautiful and effective,” Lane says. “Why recreate the wheel?”
Lane’s innovation was to link the powerful, intrinsic appeal of those materials and curriculum with therapies that could make them accessible to children with ASD.
“Montessori materials are a wonderful instrument of education, but kids who are low-functioning ASD don’t want to try anything new,” says Katie Nehring, an AMI-trained teacher who’s studied Lane’s method and helped her plan several presentations in the U.S. “They want to rock or hide under the table. ABA helps them out of that. It’s a tool that helps manage those behaviors.”
The therapies are similar to Montessori in another way—they’re shaped by very careful observation of each child. In this case the observation gives a baseline record of the child’s reaction to materials and then measures their response to each prompt and lesson, helping teachers plan a step-by-step program to draw the child in to each lesson.
At the Lane School, the faculty work one-on-one with low-functioning ASD children. They’re trained as teachers and therapists and they train with Lane in her method and to understand the autism spectrum.
But since the school opened, Lane has been sharing her method with a wider and steadily growing audience. She’s given trainings and presentations throughout the U.S. and Canada. She’s published books and a series of manuals, detailing the introduction of the Montessori lessons, combined with detailed advice on prompts and data gathering.
She also helped a group of families and educators set up Roads to Recovery, a school for children with ASD in Dayton, OH, that implements Lane’s methods.
That training and advice will continue, but Lane’s schedule and her role at the school are changing this year, dictated by the needs of children—her own, this time.
Lane and her husband just had their third child, and Michelle decided she needed to be at home more. “I don’t want to be an absentee mom.”
So this year she began teaching middle-school age children at a Montessori school near Toronto. She remains president of the Lane School and will continue as an advisor. She also will continue to train more teachers and parents, but she’ll only travel during the summer and school holidays.
In the Lane Montessori School for Children with Autism another major change is underway. The school will begin its day-long program next year at a new location, the Brampton Georgetown Montessori School, in Georgetown, just outside metropolitan Toronto.
That achieves a goal that Lane and the school’s board share, to begin integrating ASD children into regular Montessori classrooms, says board vice-president Nadia Milton.
“We’re very excited about it. Michelle always talked about co-locating with a conventional Montessori program,” where ASD children could participate regularly with typical children, with guidance and support from their teachers.
“Children with autism will be with the regular children during circle time, lunch and certain other periods during the day,” Milton says—erasing a few more barriers to full participation in the world for people with ASD.
INFO: The Lane Montessori School for Autism offers presentations, trainings and consultation from Michelle Lane.