New York Transit Museum Report to Autism Speaks 2012 Family Services Community Grant April 2013

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1 New York Transit Museum Report to Autism Speaks 2012 Family Services Community Grant April 2013 The New York Transit Museum was awarded a $25,000 Family Services Community Grant from Autism Speaks in With this award, the Museum was able to expand and refine its Subway Sleuths after-school program, designed to help 7 12 year old train enthusiasts on the autism spectrum strengthen their social skills. Specifically, grant funds supported program development, marketing and outreach, staffing and consultant costs. They also helped subsidize scholarships for those in need, with some participants paying as little as $50 for the 10- week program. PROJECT OBJECTIVES The goal of Subway Sleuths is to tap into the special interest that many youth on the autism spectrum have in trains and transit, and use this shared interest to develop comfort, competence, and positive feelings around social interactions with peers. Grant objectives, summarized below, focused on program outreach and marketing, evaluation and refinement, documentation and sharing of best practices. Objectives Market the program to reach families with lower incomes. Increase the number of students served by adding additional cohorts up to 3 per week. Complete a program evaluation tool, through which students are tracked for progress. Establish monitoring and reporting systems that enable the Museum to incorporate learning from each cycle into continuous program improvement. Communicate with parents, sharing observations, feedback, and assessments so they can support the work being done in program sessions and reinforce student progress at home. Produce a program guide with methods, sample lessons, strategies, and evaluation tools to share with an audience of like organizations across the country interested in launching similar programs. PROJECT STEPS Marketing and Recruitment The Transit Museum expanded the number of Subway Sleuths groups from two in 2011, to four in Each group met weekly for 10 weeks. A part-time Marketing Specialist was hired to conduct grassroots outreach to parents of

2 prospective program participants throughout the city. She identified schools, service providers, on-line list-serves and other outreach channels, established relationships, and generated enthusiasm and buzz among the community of families with children on the spectrum. Approximately 1,000 recruiting flyers were distributed to Parent Coordinators and Guidance Counselors in schools with students on the spectrum, including 26 public schools representing all five Boroughs, and 18 independent special needs schools. Additional flyers and s were sent to 16 professionals, service providers and support groups, and 30 disability and autism advocacy organizations who helped distribute information about Subway Sleuths to their members and followers. The National Autism Association NY Chapter, Brooklyn Special Kids yahoo group, Aspergers and High Functioning Autism Association, NYU Child Study Center and Extreme Kids & Crew all collaborated to generate awareness and attract participants to the program. 10 media outlets were provided with information about the program, including city-wide and local parenting blogs and local newspapers. One paid ad ran in a local newspaper. A database of interested parents with children currently too young to enter the program was created, as a continuing and growing Subway Sleuths pipeline. Participant Screening and Orientation The Museum added an on-site screening step at the application stage of the program, during which the Subway Sleuths team assessed each child s interest in trains and transit - - the common bond -- and got to know how autism presents in each child. During 30-minute screening sessions, students played, drew, and interacted with the facilitators and each other, while the team listened for language and processing challenges, assessed interactions with others, observed sensory issues and tolerance for frustration in order to create groups that could work well and have fun together. Families were also invited to ask questions about the program and familiarize themselves with the Museum, if they weren t already frequent visitors. Developing the Program Team Each Subway Sleuths group was co-facilitated by a team of three educators: a certified special education teacher, a speech-language pathologist (both with expertise in autism spectrum disorders), and a museum educator. Facilitators worked in close consultation with expert outside consultants from a professional therapeutic group specializing in autism spectrum disorders. These consultants observed each team and provided written feedback, suggestions and tools. Following the conclusion of each 10 week session, a wrap-up meeting and debriefing brought together Museum administrators, expert consultants and Subway Sleuths facilitators to identify lessons learned and incorporate into future sessions. 2

3 Monitoring Progress and Codifying the Program Expert consultants developed a Subway Sleuths assessment tool, piloted during the 2012 spring sessions and implemented in the fall, which looks at the program s impact on skills of participation and sharing. The Progress Tracking Sheet permits Subway Sleuths facilitators to track how often each child displays observable behaviors across four goal areas: making connections verbally and nonverbally, demonstrating memory of a shared experience verbally and nonverbally; using roles to collaborate; demonstrating an interest in being part of the group. Program facilitators created individualized goals for each student and used the assessment tracking tool to record individual and group progress at regular intervals. The team debriefed after each session to discuss and document students growth and difficulties and note individualized plans for the following session. Notes and lesson plans were meticulously added to a drop-box system to securely store weekly feedback and planning notes and provide team members easy access to review participant history and individualized goals. Upon the conclusion of the fall 2012 session, the consultants analyzed data from the Subway Sleuths tracking tool for each group and provided conclusions from the findings. With the consultants, the Museum produced The New York Transit Museum Subway Sleuths Guide, to document the program s unique approach and encourage other museums and after-school providers to consider how they might incorporate similar principles to motivate and support students social engagement. Involving Parents Facilitators sent two newsletters to parents during the course of the 10 weeks. Parents and caretakers were invited to come to the final session and celebrate. PROJECT OUTCOMES Implementation In all, 28 students participated in Subway Sleuths this grant period. Students were organized into groups for 7-9 year-olds and year-olds. After establishing a baseline for each participant during their first two Subway Sleuths sessions, facilitators tracked individual progress towards three goal areas: demonstrating an interest in being part of the group, using verbal and/or nonverbal language to demonstrate memory of shared experiences, 3

4 and using roles to collaborate. These goal areas and the tracking sheets used by facilitators were developed by the consultants especially for Subway Sleuths. Professional Evaluation The consultants reviewed and evaluated the tracking sheet data from the two fall 2012 Subway Sleuths cohorts. The results they reported indicate remarkable program impact, for example: All 11 sleuths in both groups (ages 7-9 and 10-12) demonstrated progress in communicating verbally or nonverbally their memory of a shared experience. This is significant because individuals with autism, while having positive social experiences, do not always store memories of these experiences in a way that allows them to build new and deeper connections. By highlighting and recalling previous shared memories, sleuths are learning to recall past shared experiences and further their connections with others. Among the year-olds, 5 of 5 demonstrated progress in showing an interest in being part of a group during sessions, and 5 of 5 demonstrated new skills in how they related to others and shared their interest in trains across sessions. An interest in trains is a built-in connection for these groups, which allows us to foster sleuths awareness and understanding of their place in a group. All 5 of the year-olds also demonstrated progress in assigning, accepting, and/or flexibly changing roles, and all 6 of the 7-9 year-olds demonstrated progress in using roles to collaborate. Individuals with autism can tend towards singular thinking and solving problems on their own. Taking on a specific role within the group and understanding the value of that role in relation to the whole makes collaboration possible. Because our program activities are rooted in a shared interest, sleuths learn the value of roles and practice collaboration within a motivating structure. Participant Self-Assessment Photography was an important tool for program documentation and evaluation particularly for student self-assessment. Pictures were taken during each session and reviewed at the start of the next session. These images created a link between sessions, and also had a powerful therapeutic role. At first, students commented only about photographs of themselves, but over the course of the program, they began to make comments about others in the class as well. Parent Feedback Feedback from parents via written evaluations reported that: students in both age groups were engaged in the content and activities, teamwork and other social skills were strengthened, 4

5 students enjoyed the sessions and wanted to return each week, the program site and structure made for a unique experience for these children, most of whom had not previously attended or enjoyed an afterschool program, and the trained professional staff was integral to the program s success, citing their creative and consistent efforts to engage and enrich each child. Parent comments were very positive and enthusiastic, for example: He learned to be more patient, to be cooperative, and to stay with the program. Sharing Best Practices The completed New York Transit Museum Subway Sleuths Guide will be shared with colleagues in the transportation industry, among others. For instance, at the Annual meeting of the American Public Transit Association (APTA) in the fall of 2012, the Museum s Director led a session about this program, with participants nationwide expressing interest in receiving this guide. LOOKING AHEAD The Transit Museum will continue to refine Subway Sleuths to meet the needs of students and accommodate families to optimize program impact, reach, and sustainability: Based on consistent feedback that participating students would like to keep coming, we are considering extending the after-school sessions to span both semesters of the academic calendar. In early 2013, a Saturday session was launched to engage students with busy weekday schedules, who live further from the Museum, or who may be too tired to participate after a full day of school. The response has been so enthusiastic that a second Saturday session may be added in the future. Another major consideration as we go forward will be long-term financing: As a drop-off program for students with autism spectrum disorders, Subway Sleuths groups are necessarily small, and with three trained professionals facilitating each session, it is a resource-intensive intervention. The Transit Museum will look to explore new partnerships and/or fee structures that may increase financial sustainability as the program matures. CONCLUSION The Transit Museum is deeply grateful to Autism Speaks for this Family Services Community Grant, which helped to market, evaluate, and document Subway Sleuths and also served to broaden awareness and interest in the program. The impact of this investment will continue to be felt by future cohorts of sleuths, and we thank you on their behalf as well. 5

6 CONTACT INFORMATION For more information about Subway Sleuths or other programs at The New York Transit Museum, please contact Marcia Ely, Assistant Director at or by phone at (718) ATTACHMENTS: Final Financial Report Subway Sleuths Guide Recruitment flyer Fall 2012 Subway Sleuth Newsletters for parents and caregivers 6

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