Charter School to Serve Children With Autism
Emma Daly, New York Times, May 4, 2005
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women have won approval to open a charter school for autistic
children in New York, the first public school in the city
dedicated to providing the expensive therapy that can transform
the lives of autistic children and their families.
The school, the New York Center for Autism Charter School, is to
open in September in a Manhattan public school, and is likely to
start with four pupils and four instructors. The children will
be grouped according to the severity of their autism, a
developmental disability that can cause social isolation,
repetitive behaviors and difficulty in developing language
skills. The school expects to add a pupil every few weeks for a
total of 12, ages 5 to 9, by the end of the year.
At full capacity, the school plans to educate 28 children, 5 to
14 years old, with a one-to-one ratio of staff members to
children, in a full-day 12-month program. Tuition will be free,
compared with as much as $70,000 a year at a comparable private
school, and children will be admitted by lottery.
"One of the reasons that we have been so enthusiastic about this
application is the opportunity for the department to work
closely with these educators and exchange best practices and
improve the way we educate autistic pupils," said Kristen Kane,
chief executive at the department's office of new schools.
Citing government statistics that one in 166 children born now
are autistic, she added, "We couldn't be more thrilled to have
this program developed, and we think it will be the first of its
kind in the country."
Ilene Lainer, a former labor lawyer, and Laura Slatkin, who is
about to step down from her family fragrance business, Slatkin &
Company, have spent two years working on the school application,
approved last month by the State Board of Regents.
The women, who have no professional background in education,
were inspired at first by their experiences with raising their
own autistic children, but said they are now moved by a sense of
"I started this with my son in mind," Ms. Slatkin said, "but
really it consumed me because when a disorder affects you
personally you really get motivated to change the world and help
The school is still waiting to confirm its site within a
Manhattan public school, where autistic pupils will be able to
mingle with other students in the cafeteria, at assembly or
perhaps in gym classes.
The school will receive more than $60,000 per pupil in public
money for special educational needs, rather than the $8,586
given for normally developing children at charter schools, but
Ms. Lainer, who will act as president of the school's board,
plans to seek private donations to meet an annual shortfall of
Ms. Slatkin's son, now almost 6, was 17 months old when he was
found to be autistic. Specialists advised her to lose no time in
finding a school for him, but she realized that "all the great
schools were in New Jersey." The principal of one of them,
Alpine Learning Group in Paramus, introduced Ms. Slatkin to Ms.
Lainer, and Alpine is the educational model for the charter
"My husband and I said, you know, this is not right. You should
be able to educate your child in the community where you live,"
Ms. Slatkin said. "There should be a great school in New York
So she and Ms. Lainer, whose 8-year-old son travels to a special
school in New Jersey every day, set about creating one. A
two-inch-thick folder details the school's curriculum, based on
studies showing Applied Behavioral Analysis (A.B.A.) to be the
most effective way to teach autistic children.
In this approach, teachers work one on one with a child to build
social and language abilities in very small steps, by giving the
child a reward for learning words, for example, or for sitting
still or greeting someone.
Ms. Lainer and Carolyn Ryan, director of education at the new
charter school, visited the Institute for Educational
Achievement in New Milford, N.J., which also uses A.B.A.
techniques. At the school, decorated in neutral colors that do
not overstimulate pupils, children work one on one with
instructors and are rewarded for achievements like saying the
"m" sound correctly, identifying a number, or, for an older
child, writing a short story titled "If I Were Rich."
The women were especially impressed by the system of rewarding
older children, who earn "dollars" for tasks performed, log them
in a checkbook and then spend them on treats; two minutes
relaxing outside costs $2, and six minutes playing a computer
game costs $6.
The school also extends teaching into the home. Instructors
visit families to teach parents and siblings methods for
handling difficult issues, or for teaching children to sit still
in a movie theater or a restaurant. The new school plans similar
But those touring the New Milford school were confronted with
one of the hardest aspects of raising an autistic child when the
principal, Donna Farrell, told them the school would have only
one slot available for the coming year. It expects to receive
The city's Department of Education says 3,788 autistic children
are enrolled in the public system, 786 of them educated at
private schools, with their fees paid by the city.
The New York Center for Autism, a nonprofit organization founded
in 2003, has so far focused on research and on setting up the
new school, but Ms. Slatkin, a director of the center, hopes
also to create an information and resource center for parents.
Ms. Lainer said parents of autistic children must now make
superhuman efforts to help their children. "I've gone to local
universities and looked for grad students and then trained
them," she said. "You have to be very resourceful. It is
extremely difficult, and once you have someone who's good to
work with our child, the burnout rate is somewhat high.
"It's wild, it's exhausting for the family and it's hit-and-miss
in terms of the quality that you get. You're already taxed and
stressed and concerned about your child's well-being, and this
only places additional burdens on the family."
Ms. Slatkin employs teams of therapists to educate her child at
home, for 50 or 60 hours a week. Both she and Ms. Lainer will
apply for a space at the charter school, but their children will
enter the lottery, just like the other hopefuls.
"It is difficult enough to receive this diagnosis. What I
couldn't live with was not knowing how to help my child," Ms.
Lainer said. "And I think we can make it better for other
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