Saturday, December 2, 2023

Obituary: Jennie Waltrip; taught kids with autism


Jennie Waltrip, 46, a Maryland special education teacher who had a gift for working with autistic children in ways that can’t really be taught, died suddenly from a brain aneurysm on January 20, the Frederick News-Post reports.

Jennie Waltrip

Ms Waltrip began teaching for Frederick County Public Schools in 1999 in the district’s Challenges Program, designed to integrate support for students who are on the autism spectrum or suffer from severe communication disorders. Nine years later, she joined the district’s Department of Special Education and Psychological Services as a teacher specialist, ensuring that teachers had the training they needed to work with students on the spectrum.

In her 17 years as a Maryland special educator, she played a huge role in shaping the lives of hundreds of students who suffer from autism. Although there’s no “cure” for autism, early intervention and therapy can be effective in helping students reach their full potential. Those interventions, which are designed on an individual basis, include behavioral, educational, speech, and occupational therapies.

Students in school require individual attention, because they become frustrated more easily in certain situations than kids who don’t suffer from autism. That alone takes a lot out of a teacher.

They also miss more class time as a rule, due to doctor’s appointments, trips to the nurse’s office for medication, and the need to take extra time to complete assignments or take tests.

Many autistic students have trouble speaking or may not be able to speak at all. As a result of this and other communication differences, they often seem insensitive and unemotional, adding more tribulations and a distinct need for special educators like Jennie to rise to one challenge after another over the course of a long career.

Tracey Frank, Ms Waltrip’s colleague at Carroll Manor Elementary School, one of the department’s six locations, was quoted as saying that Jennie “had that thing, the ‘it’ thing, where she could just stop and listen to someone and then say, ‘Okay, here’s what needs to be done.’ I’m a much better teacher today because of her.”

Jennie also served as a family trainer for the Maryland Autism Waiver, the paper noted.

The Maryland State Department of Education started enrolling children into the Autism Waiver program back in July 2001. A limited number of children with autism spectrum disorder who need intensive care can participate in the Autism Waiver regardless of family income.

The program entitles children to receive both Waiver services and Medicaid services according to the child’s needs. Many of the services are provided in children’s schools, but some are also needed in their homes and for their family members.

The guiding principle of the Autism Waiver is that an enrollee has a legal entitlement to receive all needed Waiver services and all medically necessary Medicaid services with reasonable promptness. Working with families, the Waiver program establishes a plan of care for each individual enrolled in the program that may include:

  • Intensive Individual Support Services that provide intensive, one-on-one interventions with the child up to 30 hours per week
  • Therapeutic Integration Services, which provide a structured after-school program focusing heavily on expressive therapies and therapeutic recreational activities
  • Supported Employment Services that provide intensive ongoing support of paid employment for older children
  • Respite Care, which is available in a child’s home or in youth camps for up to 168 hours in a 12-month period
  • Environmental Accessibility Adaptations that provide up to $1500 of home safety and accessibility improvements over 36 months
  • Family Training and counseling services that help patients and their families with treatment regimens and the use of equipment
  • Residential Habilitation, which gives kids a place to sleep, not to be used for school placement, in a facilitiy with eight beds or less in a rural, urban, or suburban area

Even this well-conceived program has experienced practical delays in registering students with an official diagnosis. Many parents for 20 years, not just in Maryland, continue to experience lengthy and often frustrating delays before they finally receive a diagnosis, write Patricia Howlin and Anna Moore in the journal Autism. “Moreover, even when this process is completed, the amount of practical help subsequently provided is generally very limited.”

The Maryland Autism Waiver program seeks to get the help parents and schools need in working with autistic children, and Ms Waltrip’s role in that noble pursuit will be in the hearts and minds of the students she touched as long as they live. Effort is needed to reduce the frustration on the part of parents awaiting an ASD diagnosis that would make them eligible for the Maryland Autism Waiver program and similar programs in other states.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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