2017-03-16 / Family

She thrives on a challenge

Local teacher has worked with special needs children for over 25 years
By Dawn Megli-Thuna


PATIENCE IS HER VIRTUE—Special education preschool teacher Julie Conway in her classroom at Wonder Preschool Feb. 27. Conway has taught children with autism for 28 years in the Conejo Valley. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers PATIENCE IS HER VIRTUE—Special education preschool teacher Julie Conway in her classroom at Wonder Preschool Feb. 27. Conway has taught children with autism for 28 years in the Conejo Valley. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Hands down. Feet on the floor. Calm body. Quiet voice.

For the past 28 years, Thousand Oaks resident Julie Conway has employed these simple phrases while teaching children with autism who are enrolled in the Be Me program at Conejo Valley Unified School District’s University Early Childhood Center.

Her students, ages 3 to 5 years old, have a wide range of developmental disabilities and language delays. The six students in her class attend four days a week from 8:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., a pretty long stretch without the benefit of naptime.

“It takes a lot of patience, but I love it,” she said.

Conway has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara and two teaching credentials from Cal State Northridge. She said she always wanted to be a teacher and decided to get her special education credential after she volunteered at a school with kids who had autism during her first year of college.

“I just fell in love with it and knew that was it for me,” she said.

Conway said her favorite part of the job is helping children work on their social and emotional challenges by coming up with practical behavior plans. She also teaches communication strategies, including sign language and picture cards, that work whether children are verbal or not.

“Early intervention in a structured school environment is really important,” she said.

She talked about Kyle Priebe, a student she had early in her career. He started Conway’s preschool class on his third birthday. His mother, Nina Priebe, said she looked at other programs in the Conejo Valley but chose to enroll her son in Conway’s class because it seemed to be a more nurturing environment.

Priebe said her son started preschool in diapers and would speak one to two words at a time. By the time he graduated from preschool two years later, he was potty-trained, fully verbal and developing social skills.

“Julie did a miracle thing,” she said.

Kyle Priebe, now 28, lives on his own and has held down the same job for 10 years. In 2004 he created a documentary, “My Life as an Autistic Boy,” that won the national Temple Grandin Award from Future Horizons Inc., a publishing company specializing in books about autism. The award goes to an individual with autism who has made an outstanding contribution to family, community and self.

Kyle Priebe said he considers Conway to be part of his family.

“But not like actual family that you’re born into and a part of, but family like a togetherness of friends,” he said.

Nina Priebe said Conway, who was recognized as Educator of the Year in 2000 by the Ventura County Autism Society, came into her son’s life at just the right moment.

“She was there for him at a time when, developmentally, he needed to be making strides,” she said.

Since Kyle Priebe was in preschool, the need for teachers specializing in autism has exploded. Conway said that when she started teaching in 1981, one out of 10,000 children had been diagnosed with autism; now, it’s one in 64.

While the cause of autism remains a mystery and there is no cure, Conway said, treatment strategies have become increasingly effective.

As a new teacher she was left to figure out on her own what worked. But over the past three decades, she said, strategies have been developed, like using weighted vests and lap pads to help children feel secure while sitting at their desks.

Conway said addressing sensory issues is critical to teaching students with autisim.

“When their bodies feel calm and when they feel good inside, it makes them available for learning,” she said.

Speech and occupational therapy complement classroom instruction, she said, and a structured environment with a consistent schedule is key.

Conway said the autism spectrum covers a wide array of developmental delays as well as talents. While working with students that cover a broad range of abilities is challenging, Conway said, there is nothing else she’d rather do.

“It’s a total labor of love,” she said. “The kids deserve it.”

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