Parent-School Collaboration Creates Positive Environment for Second Grader with Autism

| April 16, 2015
Photo of The Morphet Family:

The Morphet Family: Leanne, Zachary, Sophie and Steven.


The bright-eyed, blond boy in the white polo shirt is a second grader at Blessed Sacrament School in Syracuse. He plays baseball and football and is a good speller. Hand him an iPad and he’ll touch the screen to play word games.

This description paints a picture of Zachary Morphet as a typical 8-year-old boy. Because he is both autistic and a Catholic school student, however, he is unique among his classmates. His school principal says Zach’s parents’ involvement in his education has made his parochial schooling successful.

Although there have been recent efforts in U.S. Catholic education to expand its outreach to children with special needs, many schools struggle with the cost of serving those students. The National Catholic Education Association’s website states that “Since Catholic schools do not receive any direct federal aid (or state aid in most cases) to provide for all kinds of disabilities, some needs are too costly for the schools to be able to provide.”

Zach’s parents, Leanne and Steven Morphet, describe finding the right learning environment for their son as a long and often difficult journey. Zach was diag­nosed with classic autism at 24 months at Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn., after Leanne and Steve noticed changes in his behavior. Before that time, he had some speech skills, made eye contact and socially engaged appropriately with others.

“He lost all communications,” Steve said. Leanne added, “He used to dance. He used to call me ‘Mommy.’ He used to call [Steve] ‘Daddy.’ I came home one day and looked at Steve and I said to him, ‘When’s the last time Zach called you Daddy?”

The experts at Yale recommended a specific therapy, applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA appealed to the Morphets because it is very data-driven, and they both come from science backgrounds. Although she quit her job to care for Zach and his 10-year-old sister Sophie, Leanne is an electrical engineer. Steve is a computer scientist.

But when the family returned to Central New York, they found no educational system that provided ABA therapy, so Leanne studied the ABA course curriculum herself.

Since that time, they have found and paid out of pocket for ABA-trained therapists to work with Zach. But there were other obstacles once he reached school age. “We tried to work within our school district to have consultants come in, and it just wasn’t very collaborative,” Leanne explained. “That’s one of the reasons why [Blessed Sacrament] has been really beneficial for us. We’ve been able to get ABA consultants to come in there.”

“We didn’t feel like we were part of the team for him,” Leanne said of Zach’s public school experience. I didn’t know what Zach was doing on a day-to-day basis.” Now his school aides and teachers communicate frequently and give them data sheets on his daily progress.

“When there is course work to do, they will write down the tasks that need to be done and present them to him in such a way that he can take little bites out of the task to complete it,” Steve said. “To keep him on task and focused is important.”

His parents believe exposure to typi­­cal classmates at school is key to his success in mastering skills that are imped­ed by his autism. Some students volunteer to be his “peer for the day,” interacting with him and helping him work on specific skills. A group of them taught him on the playground, for example, how to pump his legs and swing for the first time.

Principal Andrea Polcaro said Blessed Sacrament’s students benefit from having Zach there. “He brings a richness to our school community that we were missing,” Polcaro said.

“The number one thing I wanted was people saying they wanted him, they wanted to do it,” Leanne said. The Morphets expressed the hope that Zach will continue to thrive at the school and believe they have found a place where teachers and students genuinely care about him and are also learning more about developmental disabilities as a result.

Christy Perry is a freelance writer in Syracuse, New York.

Category: Quality

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