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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

There are more than half a million children in this country diagnosed with some degree of autism, and that number keeps growing. Many children with the most severe cases must be educated in private schools, but local public schools have picked up much of that tab.

Now, many public schools are preparing to educate these students, and that's creating challenges and opportunities that many schools just haven't faced before.

Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

(Soundbite of child shouting)

LARRY ABRAMSON: Once your ears have recovered, imagine being a special ed teacher who has to get a child like this to calm down. What would you do?

Unidentified Woman (Teacher): You know what? You've just lost your smiley face.

(Soundbite of child crying)

Unidentified Woman: No.

(Soundbite of child crying)

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Twenty-five or so public school special ed teachers watching this classroom video laugh in sympathy with their colleague - a real teacher dealing with a real child. This 9-year-old could care less about the loss of a smiley face. The teachers are gathered at a conference center at the May Institute, an autism research and training center outside Boston, to learn a better way.

(Soundbite of child shouting)

ABRAMSON: Techniques that might work with other special ed students just don't cut it with kids like this one.

Lecturer Glen Dunlap of the University of South Florida tells the teachers they can figure out what's triggering this behavior.

Dr. GLEN DUNLAP (University of South Florida): It looks sometimes as though he's in full control, you know. He's like, oh, I'll have a little scream, you know? Or maybe that'll get me some attention or something like that. But at the same time, you know, what set it off?

ABRAMSON: Massachusetts, like other states, is already facing an explosion in the number of autistic kids, so the state is building capacity and has paid for these teachers to attend this weeklong seminar. Glen Dunlap shows how teachers spent months documenting the student's behavior, figuring out just why he explodes. It's a lot of work, but the payoff is huge.

Unidentified Woman: All right, caring starts by trying to do your best. That's right.

ABRAMSON: The teachers all smile as they see Mike and his teacher chatting happily. This before-and-after demonstration makes a big impression on Chuck Garman(ph), a teacher in the Lynn, Massachusetts, schools who had been working on similar issues.

Mr. CHUCK GARMAN (Teacher): I've never seen something that kind of is a how-to manual that someone that's not - doesn't have as much behavioral analysis background can start implementing it.

ABRAMSON: For years, many schools have had to send challenging kids to private schools like this one, which the May Institute runs on the other side of the campus.

Joy Burghardt is in charge of this and three other May Institute schools.

Ms. JOY BURGHARDT (Educational Services, May Institute): Many of our students have injured a classmate, injured a teacher, property destruction that they feel that they can't manage in a public school setting. And quite frankly, public schools have suspension policies, whereby if a student does certain things, they're suspended from school. We don't suspend any of our students because of behavioral issues.

Ms. CHRISTINA FLYNN(ph) (Teacher): Nice job. Show me exit.

ABRAMSON: Here, kids with pretty severe autism are exposed to a constant diet of ABA, applied behavior analysis.

Ms. FLYNN: We'll do a snack. I have reinforcement. Actually, he likes high fives. So we work with that.

ABRAMSON: Christina Flynn is teaching a boy named Matt how to match words with pictures she has laid out on a desk.

Ms. FLYNN: So he's - right now, he's learning how to identify his name with a picture of himself, and then the word exit with a picture of an exit sign.

ABRAMSON: Matt is 15 years old, but he has to learn incredibly basic skills this way, through constant repetition. Christina will show him these pictures over and over and over, and praise him every time he succeeds. And then - get this - she must keep track of every exercise. The notebook next to her is filled with pages and pages of checkmarks or minus marks.

Ms. FLYNN: Matt, show me exit. And he'll match. Nice job, Matt. And that's a plus, because he got it right. And we'll run these about 10 times.

ABRAMSON: Many kids will stay here for most of their school lives. Some live nearby in group homes, an enormous expense all paid for by local school districts. Some schools pay willingly, but many parents have to fight, even go to court.

Joy Burghardt says districts that do cover private tuition don't want to become a magnet for special ed students.

Ms. BURGHARDT: They'd prefer that we don't advertise some of the districts that we do a great deal of business with because they prefer not to have an influx of special education students, simply because of the cost of educating those children.

Ms. SARA WRIGHT (Mother): And this is Austin. Austin, say hi.

ABRAMSON: (unintelligible) Oh, that's Austin. Can you shake?

Mr. AUSTIN WRIGHT (Student): Hi.

ABRAMSON: How are you doing? Is that lunch?

Ms. WRIGHT: That's his snack he went and got out of a vending machine.

ABRAMSON: Austin Wright likes junk food, like any other 11-year-old. He munches on chips and squirms on the couch next to his mother. His parents, Sara and Jerry Wright, pushed the Boston school system to place Austin here after they saw what the public schools had to offer.

Ms. WRIGHT: I mean, I went on...

(Soundbite of child shouting)

Ms. WRIGHT: I went and visited some of the public schools. And I was willing to go see if the program was appropriate for him, but what I saw was just - it was like they were being babysat then. I'm sure - they've come a long way, the public schools now, and I know that.

ABRAMSON: Do you feel like parents today have an advantage that you didn't have, and that there's more...

Ms. WRIGHT: Absolutely. Definitely.

(Soundbite of child shouting)

ABRAMSON: Eventually, the district agreed Austin needed to be here. He's a beautiful kid - freckles, spiky red hair, cute enough to be featured on May Institute brochures. Years at the special school have brought him far. His behavior is under control, and he's become a bit of a ham.

Ms. WRIGHT: Sing Larry a song.

Mr. WRIGHT: "My Girl."

Ms. WRIGHT: Sing it.

Mr. WRIGHT: (Singing) I guess you'd say, what can make me feel this way? My girl. Talking about my girl. My girl, oh.

Ms. WRIGHT: Good job. Good job.

(Soundbite of applause)

ABRAMSON: Austin's progress is striking. It's also expensive. Tuition here costs about $75,000 a year. That's one reason schools are turning to places like the May Institute for help, to prepare for a future that is already here.

Dr. JEFF YOUNG (Superintendent of Newton Public Schools): They're growing like wildfire. It's just an unbelievable explosion of kids.

ABRAMSON: Jeff Young is superintendent of schools in Newton, Massachusetts, an affluent city outside of Boston.

Dr. YOUNG: It's growing - both in terms of number and severity.

ABRAMSON: Young and other superintendents realize they have to offer comprehensive services to these students, like this special ed preschool Newton offers all year and all summer long.

ALEX (Student): If I were an animal, I would like to be a huge elephant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALEX: (unintelligible) or maybe not.

ABRAMSON: My timing is good. Alex, a middle schooler and former student here, is reading a story to a bunch of preschoolers. They sit in a circle on a rug in the basement of Newton's education center. Alex's former teacher, Robin Fabiano(ph), says when Alex arrived in the first grade, he couldn't say a word.

Ms. ROBIN FABIANO (Teacher, Massachusetts): And his mom said to us that's, you know (unintelligible). His mom said to us, I just want him to graduate and not be able to pick him out of a crowd. And in fifth grade, he went through graduation without an aide with them. He did his speech. He didn't have any, you know, stereotypic behavior, nothing interfered with his, you know, the whole morning, and he went totally independently.

ABRAMSON: For Alex, the push to save money also helped him succeed. Many kids do better when they stay in school with their peers.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And to read why a growing number of students diagnosed with autism are attending public schools, go to npr.org.

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