Alumna succeeds in reaching, teaching autistic children
For a year her job gave her stomach aches. Standing in front of high school juvenile delinquents from gritty neighborhoods put Kari Dunn Buron in knots. The physical education teacher was only 21 and it was her first teaching experience.
“I was not that much older than they were and they were a lot more street savvy. It was hard to know how to be an authority figure,” she said. Five years later when the school closed, she had learned that children are “still vulnerable and learning, and certainly could be influenced by a teacher who cared.”
Buron ’73, M.S. ’80, cared so much that when the job ended, she returned to Illinois State for a master’s in special education. She then headed to Minnesota to develop one of the state’s first autism programs.
It was the 1980s and autism was a new label. Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in 110 children fall somewhere along the autism spectrum. Since 2002 there has been a 57 percent increase in prevalence of the physical condition that is linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. Individuals with autism lack the ability to develop social and communication skills.
Their struggle has been eased because of the teaching breakthroughs achieved by Buron, whose work with autism started with one 4-year-old student in her Minnesota public school system. Soon she had a dozen students from 12 districts. They were nonverbal, aggressive, and had severe behavioral challenges. Staff turnover was huge.
“It was just a very difficult job because you had to think on your feet all the time,” she said. “We were completely lost.”
Autism teachers relied on each other for support as programs popped up across the country. Schools had timeout rooms—the equivalent of “boxes” that reminded Buron of Minnesota fish houses. Aggressive students sat there with the door closed.
She knew it wasn’t changing behavior, but still used the room herself when a boy threw a piece of equipment at her. As she felt the blood on her forehead, she told a staff member to “put him in the box.”
It wasn’t long before she heard the child asking, “Kari, Kari, why am I in here?” She could hear him crying. “I just started crying myself. I knew he was in there because I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “That really started my journey toward finding a better way.”
Buron’s search led to a method called “gentle teaching,” which recognizes an autistic child’s challenging behavior stems from a lack of skills rather than a deliberate act. She convinced her school district to find alternative approaches. The use of timeout rooms ended and the boxes were removed.
The small group of autism teachers she worked with grew into a statewide organization, the Minnesota Autism Network, and became a model for other states. In 2001, Buron developed an Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) certificate for Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the first certification programs in the country. ASD certificates are now offered at seven Minnesota universities, and the state is developing a licensure program.
Although autism awareness has grown tremendously in the past three decades, there are still few answers as to what causes the disorder. Magnetic resonance imaging has brought insights, as researchers can look at the brain prior to autopsy. This increased understanding of ASD accounts in part for the increase in cases, Buron said, noting that Asperger Syndrome was identified in the mid-1990s and added to the spectrum.
“Professionals in the field of autism got better and better at identifying autism,” she said. “Not only did we add individuals who were diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, we also added a number of kids in between who had been diagnosed with other disabilities.”
Asperger’s is a social learning disability. Someone with Asperger’s might not be able to hold a job or establish long-term relationships because of an inability to do simple tasks, like getting yourself up in the morning or conversing socially.
She and colleague Mitzi Curtis ’77 started teaching social skills using a visual 5-point scale to explain social and emotional concepts. Buron considers Curtis a gifted teacher and was thrilled to learn she is also an Illinois State alum.
“I always felt that my training was excellent, particularly my master’s program. It was amazing to meet another teacher, a decade later and 800 miles away, who also seemed uniquely prepared, and then to discover that she was a graduate of ISU,” Buron said.
Other teachers started using their 5-point approach. It was so successful, The Incredible 5-Point Scale was published. That led to a series of 5-point books, including When My Worries Get Too Big, which teaches relaxation strategies; and A 5 is Against the Law!, which teaches lessons such as personal distance. Social Behavior and Self-Management, a book for college students that includes how to deal with roommates and dating, is due out in the spring.
She has also completed a textbook titled Learners on the Autism Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators, and created a magazine for students with ASD called The Social Times.
Buron is quick to credit Illinois State when reflecting on her professional journey, noting that she might not have had a 30-year teaching career in autism if not for an experience while still an ISU student. She was at The Baby Fold, a Normal agency for children with emotional and behavioral disorders, and observed a class of young autistic children.
“That was all I had. That was my understanding of autism but it if weren’t for my practicum, I wouldn’t have even had any idea in my mind of what I was looking at when I started the autism program,” she said.
Buron’s work has long extended far beyond Minnesota. Twenty years ago she started consulting for the Autism Society of Trinidad and Tobago. She also has done international volunteer work in Barbados, Tanzania, Ghana, and elsewhere.
And she’s explored new treatments for autism, including canine therapy. Using her yellow lab, Claire, she worked on communication skills with nonverbal children. “I was blown away by the impact Claire had,” she said. “She was a social conduit. She’s incredibly empowering. I have a lot of faith in canine therapy and autism.”
She’s also used yoga in the classroom, working with adaptive poses that don’t require as much balance. Short routines twice a day reduced tantrums.
Buron has found the value of applying her teaching tools in her own life when struggling for balance. She has used the 5-point scale, and finds her canine companion a great stress reliever.
“It’s trying to practice what I preach,” she said. “I know when to take deep breaths and go for a walk.”
Such down time is a little easier to schedule since she recently retired. She remains connected with four college friends who met in 1969 on the 15th floor of Hewitt Hall. They met recently in New York to celebrate their 60th birthdays.
She also enjoys spending August in Nova Scotia, Canada. Bear River is a summer home to Buron and her husband. There’s no cell phone coverage or Internet. If she wants to check on the rest of the world, she has to walk to the village café.
For a teacher who has devoted her life to helping others make connections, there’s a bit of irony in her finding peace by being disconnected. She does not stay in that mode for long, however, as Buron continues her quest to unlock a world of opportunity for
individuals trapped by autism—many of whom are very talented and highly educated individuals failing at life because of a lack of social skills.
“Those skills are really what’s needed at the end of the day. If somebody can’t read, we teach reading. If somebody can’t do math, we teach math. But if a person can’t succeed socially, we tend to punish,” Buron said. “We need to address it like any other skill. It needs to be taught.”
TIPS FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS
When observing challenging behavior, Kari Dunn Buron suggests you stop and ask these questions:
1. What is the child doing that you wish wasn’t happening?
2. What would you rather the student do?
3. What skills does the child need to do it that way?
4. How can you teach that?
FIVE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT AUTISM
1. Autism is the result of how the child’s brain works.
2. Autism appears to involve particular learning strengths, such as visual learning and learning through systems. Parents and teachers can use this information to create the most functional interventions.
3. Autism is a disorder of social thinking and can lead to social anxiety, which can lead to explosive and challenging behavior when a child needs to negotiate social interactions.
4. The school setting is the ultimate social environment, and children with autism are challenged to negotiate that every day without all of the necessary skills.
5. Bridges need to be built between neuroscience and education. As we learn more about the brain, we will learn more about autism and how to teach.