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Article of Interest - Autism & Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoManhattan Charter School to Serve Children With Autism
Emma Daly, New York Times, May 4, 2005
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Two Manhattan 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 community.

"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 others."

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 around $600,000.

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 school.

"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 City."

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 services.

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 100 applications.

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 people."


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