Tooele High School finds success using a new approach with an autistic student

Jun 6, 2018, 6:40 PM | Updated: 10:28 pm

TOOELE, Utah – Imagine a life where a new face or a loud sound throws you into a tailspin. Then try navigating high school.  “He was getting aggressive,” said Shiloh Vigil, Louie’s Mom. “He’s a fighter, for sure.”

16-year-old Louie Vigil has autism and brain damage. Last year at Tooele High was rough. Joe Krueger, a life skills instructor at the school, said, “He did bite. He will scratch. He will claw.” Krueger noticed old efforts weren’t working. “He would learn that he could get upset and then he’d get the thing that he wanted,” he said.

So, Krueger tried something new. He started looking for cues when Louie became anxious. “A repetitive, high-pitched noise. I almost refer to it as, ‘the alert call.’ We know he’s getting agitated and he’s letting us know,” he said.

When Louie gets upset, they clear the room turn out the lights, and that has made all the difference. While a teacher stays with Louie, he’s given the time he needs. “We don’t wait for it to peak. As we start to see those triggers, we know that we need to let him come down from that,” he said.

Patricia Aguayo is a child psychiatrist at the University of Utah Health who specializes in Autism. She said the approach is spot on.  Changing the environment to avoid expected behavior is a principle that works. The scientific practice is called Applied Behavior Analysis. “We look at the behavior and the antecedent, what was going on before this behavior or after,” said Aguayo.  “The trigger and then the consequence. Those are the things you can modify.”

One in 59 kids has autism spectrum disorder nationally, according to a 2018 prevalence report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Utah, it’s one in 50, according to experts with the Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

The new approach has led to success for Louie. “Now we’re seeing him want to go out when we do our jobs throughout the school. When we go to the park, he wants to come with. He’s excited to go swimming with our class tomorrow,” Krueger said.

And though he still struggles, Louie’s bad days went from weekly to only a few times a year, Krueger said. “We’re seeing a social nature and just a kindness.”

Louie is even helping with chores. “I walked in and he was sweeping and I got to see it. I got to see him do stuff, you know? That’s improvement, that’s progress, that’s huge,” said Vigil, who celebrates the victories. “He told me that he loved me the other day, and I was just crying, just thinking about it. Those are the things that are, ‘Wow,’ you know?”

By helping Louie find some peace, it’s helping him find his way.

Experts say each child with autism is different and interventions should be tailored to individual needs.

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Tooele High School finds success using a new approach with an autistic student