School Gives Autistic Students Way to Communicate

Many autistic students such as 13-year-old Ty Martin find traditional schools are not able to deal with their condition.

For Ty, loud noises were crippling, and his former school couldn't handle his outbursts.

"Everyday moments could be catastrophic to him," said Ty's mother, Judy Martin. "I said, 'There has to be some place for my son. I do not accept that at the age of 9 or 10 that we're just at a dead end. I do not accept that.'"

After years of searching, Martin found the answer to her concerns at the Community School in Decatur, Ga. Founded by Dave Nelson, the specialized school consists of eight male students and 12 faculty members. It has given the handful of boys with varying degrees of autism a way to thrive and improve their communication skills, although it is open to female students, too.

Nelson, who has a 19-year-old autistic son, understands the students' plight. Some battle anger and obsessive behavior.

"These are kids who have struggled so much for meaning and contentment in their lives," said Nelson, who is also a licensed counselor who specializes in working with children. "As a result [the students] actually develop and grow. That's incredibly rewarding."

Student Kenny Busey said the three-year-old Community School is "definitely a better environment than his previous school.

"I would get bullied just about every day, and none of the teachers knew it was happening," the 17-year-old said. "Not even the principal knew."

His mother grew frustrated with the system.

"We were getting no support from the schools. They were all blaming it on him," said Kenny's mother, Lee Busey.

A New Way to Learn

The Community school is designed for students in junior high and high school between the ages of 12 and 18. It allows students to graduate with a GED and, while it's too new to have had any graduates yet, it's expecting to graduate two or three students this year.

The Community School is one of several in the nation that addresses the needs of students using Stanley Greenspan's DIR model. Greenspan, a child psychiatrist who teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes a healthy, social-emotional development is key to healthy intellectual development, especially for autistic children. The model emphasizes engaging children and getting them to feel comfortable with intimacy.

In a teaching video from the school, for instance, a withdrawn little boy won't interact with his parents even as they continue calling him. But when his father entices him to interact, allowing his son to feel in charge, the boy suddenly opens up.

It's a simple change — enticing the child and meeting him in his world, rather than controlling it. The consequences can be huge, and the Community School offers the same kind of one-on-one instruction.

The educational institution offers teaching built around personal interest rather than fixed-lesson plans.

Now Ty, who turns 14 Nov. 21, is learning history in his own way.

"When we're teaching about the presidents, we're teaching that by starting with talking about bosses that Ty has had a lot of experience with," founder Nelson said. "And that personal meaning gives us an opening to then help him learn that more conventional material."

Changing Attitudes

The warm and nurturing environment has helped Ty trust those around him, and he's learning to control his noise anxieties with a timeline, too. It plots out his big emotional events, like a loud siren, to help him keep track of how he's handled his anxiety.

Even Ty recognizes his progress, and what the school has done for him.

"Other places didn't understand me and didn't know who I was," Ty said. "It feels great. I feel happy when people understand me."

The students communicate better, and they appear to be happier. Kenny's parents have watched as their son made the first friends of his life.

It can be pricey. Tuition is $25,000 per student, although the actual cost is more like $35,000. That means the school must raise at least $100,000 annually to avoid raising tuition and keeping the school accessible to those who need it the most. For the students' parents, the Community School's effect on their children justifies the price.

"It was just a whole different child — just four months later," Lee Busey said.

Judy Martin, too, has seen a difference in her son, Ty.

"I think the key for him was that the school accepted him and his fears," she said. "And they've helped him learn to cope. And it has completely transformed our lives."

Click here to learn more about the Community School in Decatur, Ga.

Click here for information from The Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental & Learning Disorders.