The caring teachers and professionals at Step-by-Step Success are devoted to providing a successful educational environment for children with autism.
Not many people find their life’s calling when they’re teenagers. But that was the case for Shannon Gunter when she first learned of autism at age 15. She met a precocious 2-year-old girl with autism and fell in love with her. Eighteen years later, that toddler is now 21 years old and a student at Shannon’s Step-by-Step Success school for children with autism and behavioral issues.
“I love these kids,” says Shannon of her students. “People who don’t have a close relationship with a child with autism often have a skewed perspective of what these kids can do.Unfortunately, there are often low expectations of these children. We raise those expectations. I developed this school to give local families the options they need and deserve.”
One hundred students strong, the 5,500-square foot school ‘s youngest student is just 2, while the oldest, the girl who served as Shannon’s inspiration, is 21. The area’s only dedicated autism center, Step by Step students receive a variety of training and therapeutic services, all based on the strategies of applied behavioral analysis and instructed by teachers who are also certified behavioral therapists.
“Once we can get some of the behaviors under control, the students can move forward, get out there and enjoy life.
“When we meet our students, we don’t look at their overall diagnosis as much as their skill deficit,” adds Shannon. “We want these kids to experience life as normally as possible. They are capable.”
In a classroom-style setting, the children learn about letters, shapes, numbers and more. Older students may be working at or even beyond their grade level in a variety of subjects. Developed by a behavior analyst, the school’s curriculum follows the requirements set forth by the Florida Department of Education. A three student to one teacher ratio ensures that each child will receive personalized care and attention.Introducing students with autism to group settings and situations is equally important, as those with autism often have difficulties coping with socializing.
“Some of the older kids especially have a hard time engaging with peers,” says Shannon. “We have one student who is 13 who was just able to spend the night at a friend’s house for the first time recently. It was a big deal for him.”
And Shannon, along with the rest of her team, celebrates the kids’ successes right along with them and their families.
“Seeing our kids progress and move forward is the most rewarding part of what we do,” she says. “We reward the positive behaviors and provide an environment that makes learning fun for the students. We want the kids to want to come here and learn.”
In addition to the autism school, which runs from 9am-2pm, similar to most conventional schools, the students at Step by Step also take part in both personal and social skills training. An intensive potty training program is in use and is highly successful. Self-feeding, dressing, cooking and cleaning are all tasks that many of us take for granted on a daily basis, but they are tasks that are necessary to ensure a good quality of life in the future.
Along with the skills labs and classroom time, the students also receive one-on-one therapy and care from their dedicated teachers on ABLLS assessments—the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills. The results allow parents and staff to identify challenges that have been preventing a child from acquiring new skills and to develop a comprehensive, language-based curriculum based on each child’s needs.
While many of the children at the school have already been diagnosed with autism or a behavioral disorder, that diagnosis isn’t necessary. Free screenings are offered to parents who are concerned that their child isn’t developing at the same rate as their peers.