ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The government estimates that 1 child in 68 is on the autism spectrum. And with the rise in diagnoses, we're seeing a new resource - autism-only schools. For parents whose kids are having a tough time in traditional classrooms, these specialized schools can be a godsend. As Deena Prichep reports, they also raise a new set of questions.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: The federal law that governs special education lays out the goals pretty clearly. Students are entitled to an appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. But talk to some parents of kids with autism, and you'll hear a different story.
CARSON ELLIS: We went on a field trip, and there were, like, name tags for all the kids, but no nametags for the special-ed kids.
PRICHEP: Carson Ellis's, Hank, is autistic. He spent kindergarten in a special-ed classroom at his local public school in Portland, Oregon.
ELLIS: And another time, we went to some kind of art studio or something. And they had art-supply packets that they had forgotten to get enough for the special-ed kids. It was, like, stuff like that.
PRICHEP: Ellis says the teacher herself was very kind and caring. But given the school's overall attitude and resources, Hank wasn't really a part of things. And when it came to appropriate curriculum...
ELLIS: Man, he was a 5-year-old who was reading at, like, an eighth-grade level. He got his talented and gifted designation. And I was like, OK, sign me up for the awesome advanced reading group. And they were like, that doesn't exist.
PRICHEP: Ellis ended up feeling like there were a lot of missed opportunities.
ELLIS: He was really unhappy, and there was a point where I felt like making him feel like a worthwhile kid trumped everything else.
PRICHEP: Now Hank attends Victory Academy. In some ways, it seems like a typical private school - small classrooms with little kids learning their numbers...
TRICIA HASBROOK: How many blocks all together?
PRICHEP: ...And older kids in music class.
HASBROOK: Good. Nice.
PRICHEP: But all of these students are on the autism spectrum.
HASBROOK: It's about breaking down the task and that positive reinforcement. But it's also about the instructional strategies.
PRICHEP: Tricia Hasbrook founded Victory Academy after struggling to find a good fit for her own autistic son. The world around them might feel very chaotic, and so we teach them sensory regulation skills and social cognition so that they can have purposeful relationships throughout their life.
PRICHEP: Hasbrook acknowledges that a lot of these kids have non-typical behaviors or ways of interacting with the world that aren't going to change. But the teachers meet the kids where they are and give them the tools to pursue what they want out of life.
HASBROOK: They get an environment that they feel is safe, sometimes to act out, or to be their very best selves and shine here. I think that a separate school for children with autism is an amazing thing.
NE'EMAN: Segregated schools lead to segregated societies. Inclusive schools give us the opportunity for inclusive societies.
PRICHEP: Ari Ne'eman heads the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and was appointed to the National Council on Disabilities. He says that many segregated schools and classrooms, like the ones he attended, have what he calls a culture of low expectations. But even ones that don't can still create hurdles.
NE'EMAN: If we have an environment in which autistic people are over there in that other classroom, in that other environment, it really sends a very clear message that we are not a part of your society.
PRICHEP: But Ne'eman acknowledges that parents often face a tough choice between the world they want to create and the world their kids may be living in.
NE'EMAN: I would never ask families to make a political statement with their children's future. You know, I spent time in public schools where I was bullied and not challenged and underestimated. And I know we have a really serious problem.
PRICHEP: According to the Department of Education, the solution to this problem is schools that are truly inclusive.
WAYNE SAILOR: Kids with primary autism may have a very complex schedule within a fully integrated school.
PRICHEP: Wayne Sailor directs the Swift Center, which is working with the government on a new model of inclusive education. Special-ed and general-ed teachers work together as a team. Students get different tiers of assistance, whether it's a bit of personal attention, or engaging with the whole class, or helping the student next to them.
SAILOR: The important point is kids move fluidly back and forth through the tiers as needed.
PRICHEP: Sailor says that sort of fluid inclusion model undeniably takes coordination, but not necessarily more resources. And so far, the outcomes look pretty positive for all students. But for parents who can't find a truly inclusive approach, like Carson Ellis, autism-only schools can feel more accepting. Ellis says Hank likes having classmates who are a lot like him. But, Ellis says, that's not why the school works.
ELLIS: There's a really kind of special degree of empathy and patience and love - I will even say it - love and innovation.
PRICHEP: For a school like Victory Academy, that innovation, empathy and love are part of the job. And advocates of inclusive education hope that when classrooms have all kinds of kids working together, autistic and not, that innovation empathy and love will become a part of daily life, which is a lesson we all could learn. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
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