Educating Children who have Autism

Jun 30, 2014

Public v. Private education for children on the autism spectrum

There are hundreds of children in Washoe County diagnosed with autism, but there’s a difference in opinion about the best way to educate these students. As part of our ongoing series on autism, Reno Public Radio’s Esther Ciammachilli looks at how parents and educators are making these tough decisions.

It's finals week at Newton Learning Center and teacher Jody Smith is preparing his class for their last math test of the year. 

Newton is a tuition-based private school that specifically serves children on the Autism spectrum.  It costs a little more than thirteen hundred dollars a month.

Newton aims to correct and improve social and behavioral skills – something that doesn’t come naturally to children with autism, as Smith explains.

“The main emphasis at our school is called social thinking.  We use social thinking to help students be more aware of the world around them and not just think in themselves, but to think about others and how to interact with other people.”

Newton also focuses on core curriculum subjects like language arts, math and science. Every teacher at Newton is certified in special education, and the school has approximately twenty-four students.

One of them is seventeen year-old Kristina Lammers. 

“I’m finally at a school where people understand me.”

Lammers has been at Newton for about two and half years.  And it’s made a big difference. In public school, she almost never spoke, and general education was a struggle. 

“And when I was at the public school I wasn’t really getting much sleep, so I was getting really stressed. And it’s really helped to go here to Newton because it’s pretty much everything I’ve always needed.”

She says her stress was brought on by large class sizes and the lack of individual attention students with developmental disabilities often need. But since she’s been at Newton, her grades have improved, she’s made friends and stress is a thing of the past.

Most students stay at Newton about two years, but it’s different for everybody.  Once parents feel their child’s social and behavior skills have improved, Newton helps with the transition back to public school.  But some parents don’t want that, like Kristina’s father Kurt Lammers.   

“The thought of transitioning back to Washoe County School would be simply unthinkable.”

Like many parents at Newton, he made the decision to pull his kids out of the Washoe County School District due to a lack of resources for special education.   

“Honestly they don’t have anything. They don’t have the ability, they don’t have the compassion, [and] they don’t have anything in their system that lets these kids build their self-esteem back up once everything’s been yanked away.”

The Washoe County School District is aware of these concerns.  For much of 2014, the district has been scrutinizing the autism portion of their special education program.  They’re adding more behavior analysts to better serve children with special needs, as well as training general education teachers.  Frank Selvaggio is with the district.   

“They’re children within our schools that we want to provide the right support, so they can be successful, just as successful as students that do not have disabilities.”

A federal mandate requires public schools to provide children with special needs the “least restrictive environment.” This means students with disabilities attend classes in general education, unless the nature of a child’s disability is too severe for the standard learning environment. If that’s the case, they’re placed in a special education program that better suits their needs. But the district tries to avoid that.  

“The more we are able to expose them to non-disabled peers, the more they are getting prepared for the environment they will face once they graduate from high school.”

It’s called mainstreaming and, many parents feel it’s the best way to educate their children.  One of those parents is Jean.  She asked us not to use the real names of her family because her daughter, who has autism, has recently struggled with her mental health.

Jean’s daughter has been in general education classes since her first day of school.

“We wanted her in mainstream class rooms because we wanted her to know what normal looked like. And if she was going to imitate someone, we wanted her to imitate a typical child.”

Jean says she chose mainstreaming because the structure and repetition of the special education classes felt oppressive to her.  She wanted her daughter to have more freedom than what was being taught there.  She says the instructional and emotional services provided by the school district have been wonderful.

“I was so moved by their commitment and their intention and their care…for this one child. And we took our direction from them.”

Jean has never heard of Newton Learning Center.  When asked, she says she wouldn’t ignore the idea of sending her daughter to a school for children with autism.  But she says, her daughter is flourishing in public school, and would much rather stay right where she is.