For schools that cater specifically to children on the autism
spectrum, one mantra remains constant: Try everything.
"We fit the program around whatever they need," says Wendy
Murphy, director of therapeutic schools for Easter Seals
Metropolitan Chicago. "We make new discoveries every day."
Schools such as Easter Seals' and Naperville-based Krejci
Academy are an option when a traditional curriculum provided by
public school districts can't fulfill the needs of students with
Vera Erickson of suburban Shorewood sought outside evaluation
for her son, Alec, and realized there was "no way" the public
school system could provide the services he needed.
"It was pretty much night and day," Erickson says of her son's
transition into Krejci's Academy's program. "He was struggling a
lot in the public school system-a lot of behavioral issues, didn't
really have any friends whatsoever, the teachers struggled with
him. Once he went to Krejci, it was a huge improvement. He's one of
the most social kids in his class right now. He has multiple
Krejci Academy, part of Little Friends Inc., serves about 120
students from 42 different school districts throughout the state.
Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago can be found on the Southwest
Side of Chicago and serves 118 students from over 20 districts.
At these two specialized schools, no two students have the exact
same routine; individualized programs are the norm.
Step inside a classroom at Easter Seals and you'll find an
environment very different from a traditional academic setting.
Instead of 20 or more kids per class, these schools have only a
handful of students in each classroom. Students can visit special
rooms where ball pits and swings help them calm down. One class
lesson might cover personal boundaries. Some students communicate
with pictures instead of words.
All of this is partially what attracted 26-year-old Ashley
Bennett to special education.
"It's always changing," says Bennett, who teaches 10- to
12-year-olds at Easter Seals. "On a typical day, I'll sit down and
work with one student for 15 minutes, and then I let them have some
free time. I get up, I go to the next student, work with them for
15 minutes. So it's really all about individualized, one-on-one
Depending on their age and cognitive and development levels,
students are often given opportunities beyond the classroom
throughout the day to work on a wide range of skills. They may
learn to communicate via Picture Exchange Communication (PEC) or
learn more social interaction skills. Some students receive support
in mastering simpler tasks such as handwriting, tying shoelaces and
"We're not locked into one method," says Camille Smith,
principal of Krejci Academy. "We're very fluid in being able to
utilize whatever strategy is most appropriate for any particular
A child's transition from the public school system into an
alternative program can be difficult for parents, according to
program coordinator Susan Fruland.
The faculty at Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago notice a
similar trend-parents are sometimes apprehensive when their child
first enters an alternative program.
"Some of our parents come to us kind of burnt out," Murphy says.
"They have fought and they have fought, and then they come, and
they're so used to being on alert and ready to fight for everything
that it's not necessarily comfortable for them to be relaxed and
One of the benefits of alternative programs is the freedom to
make adjustments and provide students with the best possible
learning experience, according to Nicole Davenport, school
administrator at Easter Seals.
"When we did placement last year we said, 'Boy, these three
girls who are the same age range, they would work great together.'
So we placed them in a classroom," Davenport recalls. "It's nice
because then you can start grouping kids by thinking, 'Where will
they progress? Where will they get the most socialization? Where
will they have more opportunity?'"
Vera Erickson, who says her son has every intention of going to
college one day, remembers how she cried every time Alec brought
home a note from his public school teachers after a behavioral
"If it hadn't been for Krejci, there's no way Alec would be
where he is now," Erickson says.
Each alternative program for children with autism puts concern
for the students' progress at the top of their list.
"You are just so dedicated to making sure they do excel, they do
go far, because pretty much every student in the school is here
because no one really knows what else to do," Bennett says.
"It's kind of the end of the line."
Jordan K. Turgeon is a student at Northwestern University's
Medill School of Journalism assigned to Medill's news services.
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