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 disabilities.
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 friends.”
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 teaching.”
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 working zippers.
“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 child.”
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 trusting.”
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 issue.
“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.