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Autism Now: Demand for Educational Resources for Children Outstrips Supply

April 21, 2011 at 9:10 PM EDT
For public school systems, the demand for special educational and treatment resources for children with autism often outpaces what is available. In the fourth report in his Autism Now series, Robert MacNeil looks at how two schools in the New York City area handle teaching children and teens with autism.


ROBERT MACNEIL: In New York City schools, there are more than 7,000 students with autism. Seven hundred of them, from preschool age to 21, attend this public school for autism in the Bronx, PS 176.


WOMAN: Roll the dice. Oh, boy. What number?


WOMAN: Good. What are you going to do next?

ROBERT MACNEIL: These children see doctors periodically, but they go to school every day. It’s the public school system that bears most of the burden of treating children with autism, because treatment means teaching. And federal law mandates that all children with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate education.

RIMA RITHOLTZ: Autism can suck the fun out of life. Having a child with a disability can suck the fun out of life. And we work very hard here to put the fun back in.


STUDENT: Sesame Street.

RIMA RITHOLTZ: Anybody watch it when they were younger? Yes.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The principal for the last 16 years is Rima Ritholtz, whose students cover the full autism range, from severely challenged to higher functioning.

Where Adam took me was he made me into a better man. And he's really taught me that the true meaning of life is to love and to give of yourself and to be compassionate and to serve others.Jesse Mojica, a Bronx education official who has a son with autism

RIMA RITHOLTZ: My educational philosophy is that they’re children first before they’re children with autism. And they deserve the exact same quality of programming and professionalism that any student would get anywhere else.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Her teacher-to-student ratio begins at one teacher plus a teacher’s aide to six students, moving as students progress, to less-restrictive classrooms, with eight to 12 children.

RIMA RITHOLTZ: We’re trying to approximate the general education programs and hopefully, eventually, we’d like our students to return to general education.

ROBERT MACNEIL: And what proportion do?

RIMA RITHOLTZ: I would say a very small proportion. Out of 700 students, I would say maybe 10 students return.

WOMAN: We know that a lot of our students are motivated by music, especially the autistic child.

RIMA RITHOLTZ: Today we’re talking about the iPad, and we think this is going to be a very valuable tool to use with students on the spectrum.

WOMAN: And as soon as I pick it up, it changes colors. And now I can play it.

RIMA RITHOLTZ: We have a certain number of them. We don’t have the money to buy more.

ROBERT MACNEIL: How many have you got so far?

RIMA RITHOLTZ: I’ve got 23 for 103 classes. Over 700 students.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Jesse Mojica is the director of education policy for the Bronx borough president. We talked to him about the iPad issue.

JESSE MOJICA: There are so many questions with regards to autism, so many things we do not know. But there are certain things that we do know, and technology plays a very important part, in particular, with children with limited ability to express themselves.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Jesse speaks not just as education official but as a father. He and his wife Anna have a son with autism who attended PS 176 but was not doing well.

JESSE MOJICA: He was exhibiting self-injurious behavior, he was, he is nonverbal. But he was really drifting inward.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Then a charter school for autism was announced, with 30 places to be filled by lottery.

JESSE MOJICA: I heard about the charter school, and I said wow, that’s fascinating. One on one, you know, teaching. And I said that’s what Adam needs. And we put our hat in the lottery. And we found out that Adam just barely missed it. And it was devastating to us, it was devastating. Here was something that I felt would help my son, that I felt powerless to help him. I was heartbroken, I was, but it is the way it should be. I mean it is by lottery, and there is no preference to anybody, no matter where you are from, or who you know, and that’s fair.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But another boy from the Bronx did win the lottery to the charter school in Manhattan.

CAROL SANTIAGO: A gift from God. We won the lottery. That’s what I like to tell people, because it really was a lottery.

ROBERT MACNEIL: His mother Carol is a community organizer in East Harlem. His father, Raphael DeJesus*, is a doorman in a Manhattan apartment building.

RALPHIE DEJESUS: Oh, hi, I’m Ralphie, and I’m telling you about Alvin Ailey kids.

CAROL SANTIAGO: There’s no set one curriculum. There’s not set one thing that has to be done. It’s what’s going to work for this child at this particular time. Let’s take that, and let’s apply that. And that’s the key, that commitment on the one to-one level. And really that, you know, if you look at it, they get close to 40 hours of ABA a week. And that’s you know…

ROBERT MACNEIL: Forty hours of?

CAROL SANTIAGO: Applied behavioral analysis. That’s the gold standard. The only proven, really, educational standard for autism.

RALPHIE: I can’t wait.

WOMAN: I think it’s going to be awesome.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Julie Fisher is the director of the charter school founded by the New York Center for Autism. It is funded under the federal disabilities education mandate plus some private fundraising.

JULIE FISHER: I think Ralphie would fall on the more sophisticated end of the autism spectrum. He is charming, first of all. He is very smart, but social interactions are very challenging for him.

WOMAN: Who were you talking to, because you were facing the wall?

RALPHIE: This would be a great day for sports day.

I’m going tell you about my travel.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Whatever else he’s learned, when not in school, Ralphie is still a nonstop talker, compulsively on his preferred subjects, especially the New York subway.

RALPHIE: And then we take the B to 81st Street. We usually wait for the two or three, but last time we had to take the two. Then we take it to Times Square, 42nd Street to the shuttle, to the five. I have to hurry, but the five is express.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The only charter school in New York State exclusively for children with autism, this was created to be a model of possibilities.

JULIE FISHER: We are fortunate in that we have a great ratio in almost every classroom. We have the ability to instruct pretty much one-to-one. So that allows us to do the high level of individualizing of everything that we do, which I think is so critical when you’re educating kids with autism, because they’re so different from one another. You really have to construct things on an individual level.

ROBERT MACNEIL: For children with autism, many of the lessons teach life skills. To talk, to sit still, pay attention, to learn how to shave, to wash their hair, know the dangers of traffic.

Or to overcome the terror these children often feel going to the doctor. A fear the school eases with its own in-house clinic.

JULIE FISHER: Dylan historically has had real challenges with anything medical-doctor related. She couldn’t go to a doctor without intense tantruming, having to be held down for any procedures, hadn’t tolerated taking medicine, temperature taken, wearing a Band-Aid.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Typical children may acquire these skills as easily as they breathe. Children with autism have to be taught painstakingly, repetitively and with endless patience.

STUDENT: What should I do?

JENNIFER CONNELLY: I don’t know, you tell me. $7.99, but you’ve got to figure it out fast. Other people are waiting…

ROBERT MACNEIL: Jennifer Connelly is the school’s director of education

JENNIFER CONNELLY: Perfect. And off the top of your head without using a calculator, you gave me $8, and it cost $7.99. What is your change?

STUDENT: One cent.

JENNIFER CONNELLY: Each of our students every month has a clinic. And it’s an opportunity for us to come together, often with parents, and kind of have a think-tank session. So looking at specific skills and then problem-solving around how to best help our students acquire those skills quickly.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Ralphie’s mother Carol Santiago is now on the board of the charter school. She believes its approach should be used to improve autism education in all public schools. People trained in teaching children with autism, not general education, should be in charge.

JESSE MOJICA: I wish that every single student within the New York City public school system can have a model like that. It’s just not possible. The resources aren’t there. But at the same time, you are creating something that is helping those children, and you are training a group of educators that will go out and will become the heads of school systems, you know, or heads of schools within the system and educate others.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The day we visited was Adam’s 12th birthday. He now attends a different ABA school in Manhattan, and Jesse says he’s happy. But at the end of the day, whatever the school experience, the treatment of autism comes home to the parents.

JESSE MOJICA: I am a very different person than I was before Adam was in my life. And when he was diagnosed with autism, it was a very difficult time. This is a moment where your life is changing dramatically, and you can either be broken by that, or it can take you in another direction. And where Adam took me was he made me into a better man. And he’s really taught me that the true meaning of life is to love and to give of yourself and to be compassionate and to serve others. And I’ve met a lot of very impressive people in my life, but no one’s taught me that more than my son, and I will be forever grateful to him.

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