Monday, April 27, 2009

Southern Nevada opens first school for students with autism

From the Las Vegas Sun:

Southern Nevada's first school for children with high-functioning autism has found a home in Henderson.

After searching for months for an affordable place to open a school, founders of The Achievement Academy will open the doors at the DJ Community Christian Academy, 95 S. Arroyo Grande Blvd., which is near Valle Verde Drive.

Although not affiliated with a religion, The Achievement Academy students will have access to the existing school's library, computers, playground and cafeteria.

The nonprofit Achievement Academy is scheduled to open Sept. 8 with about 20 students in grades first through eighth.

"We're just very fortunate to have found a school because of the economy," said founder Barbie Lauver.

The biggest advantage is that the autistic students will have the chance to interact with their normal-functioning peers. Autistic children almost always display deficiencies in social and communication skills, Lauver said.

"The academics we're absolutely fine with having the children being in a contained environment but socially, during recess and lunch, they'll be with typical peers and able to model their behavior and their conversations," she said.

Teachers from The Achievement Academy will supervise and support the interactions.

The Clark County School District offers individual attention in the classroom and with home-based programs for its students with autism, mental disabilities and hearing or vision impairments. But no single school or program could satisfy all the needs for children and adults with autism disorders, said Shannon Crozier, associate director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at UNLV.

The center is training the academy's staff.

"What we know is that autism has, for many years now, been enormously on the rise in Nevada," she said. "Whatever services we have are continuously being outstripped by demand."

One out of every 150 children is believed to have some form of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's critical that the valley start to diversify the services that are available for individuals on the spectrum across their life span," Crozier said. "There is a tremendously diverse range of needs in this population. Starting with a school that is going to address the needs of children is an excellent place to start."

The Achievement Academy is a private school, which is awaiting accreditation from the state Department of Education. The accreditation should be approved in August, Lauver said.

It is the brainchild of Lauver, co-founder of the Asperger's Syndrome High Functioning Autism Support Group, which was founded seven years ago.

She pulled her 13-year-old son, John Matthew, from the school district nearly two years ago to homeschool him. At 4 years old, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Asperger's syndrome.

The curriculum is based on the students' ability levels, not grade level, and will emphasize life skills along with academics.

"We'll be instrumental in their social skills and making sure that they can be out in the community," said Karen Custer, a teaching assistant and music specialist. "They need to know how to go to the bank or ride a bus. They need to be able to vocalize for themselves and understand how to navigate different situations."

The teachers will also use music as a behavioral tool.

Custer is a classically trained violinist who has conducted research on how music affects children's behavior.

"We'll use it to prevent tantrums, to prevent breakdowns when a child becomes unfocused on their work if they have ADD, ADHD, anxiety -- any type of problem where they can't self-regulate their emotions," she said. "They listen to certain, selected tracks of music. We give them 10 to 20 minutes to just sit there and self-regulate so they can go back to the classroom and be an active part rather than be removed from the classroom."