Turning Obsession Into Opportunity

Dissatisfied with public autism education, Las Vegas’ Barbie Lauver took matters into her own hands

My son Dante was the first to ask questions about his twin brother’s obsessive interests—elevators, camera manuals, the Wynn marquee—as though he actually cared to hear the answer. To Dante, Georgie’s mind was uncannily like his own. Georgie, too, liked to hear about his twin brother’s obsession: history. It’s like they spoke their own language—the language of obsession.

In the scholastic world, teaching these children often means putting a stop to their familiar tracks of obsession and focusing them on more appropriate academic subjects. For my kids and others with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s syndrome, this can lead to kicking and screaming—what I lovingly call meltdowns. The kids cannot possibly understand why they are being punished for being enraptured by a passion that brings them so much joy.

In 2005, I set out to find a way to leverage, rather than battle, my children’s unique needs and talents as I prepared them for the world. That August, I attended an Asperger’s/High-Functioning Autism Support Group in Summerlin, founded and run by Barbie Lauver. Her son, John Matthew, has high-functioning autism; his obsessive gift is to mold little creatures— birds, slugs, cartoon animals—out of clay. “He’s quite good at it,” she says.

Lauver and I began to brainstorm. Two moms on a mission to find a place for their high-functioning autistic kids to thrive. I went to San Jose, Calif., to tour the Morgan Center. One of the best autism schools in the country, the center has a 1:1 student teacher ratio and a clear understanding of how to teach very gifted Asperger’s kids. If a child is obsessed with math, he or she is assigned a math teacher, who teaches the student all subjects, from history to art, through math.

Inspired, I cofounded a small educational center for my boys and a handful of others in 2007. Lauver, though, wanted to build something more—a full-scale school for children with Asperger’s. In September 2009, she opened the Achievement Academy in Henderson—the first such private school in the Valley. After eight difficult years in and out of Clark County School District schools, John Matthew had finally found an educational home.

Lauver has grown her school slowly as she fine-tunes the model. The Achievement Academy now has 19 students in grades 1-9, two teachers, two aides and volunteers from the College of Southern Nevada. Lauver is adding another grade each year until the academy continues through high school. Each child has an individualized curriculum focusing on his or her abilities, and parents are encouraged to participate. To help the students come out of their shells socially, Lauver even has a Life Skills Center with a mock restaurant, bank, post office and a student grocery store with a real cash register.

“The Achievement Academy has been a lifesaver for us,” says Heather, a parent with a son in fourth grade. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to drop my son off in the morning and know he is in the hands of people who truly care and have his best interest at heart.”

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Lauver’s road to the Achievement Academy was not the path of least resistance. For years, she struggled to find the right fit for her son as one of the more than 3,000 autistic children in the Clark County School District.

One problem was bullying. In April 2007, ABC News reported that 90 percent of children with Asperger’s are bullied on a daily basis in mainstream schools, and bullies tend to be their mainstream role models.

Lauver noticed her own son’s odd body language. When she brushed up behind him, he thrust his body forward as if he had been pushed from behind. When confronted, John Matthew said, “This happens to me every day at school.” There were problems academically as well. “There was not enough training or support in the CCSD to make him feel any self-worth or acceptance,” she says. “He was not in the right environment for him to thrive.”

The school district has tried to deal with such issues, and has since 2002 conducted Disability Awareness Days throughout the year to increase mainstream students’ sensitivity toward students with disabilities. In addition, various local and national programs address bullying on school campuses.

A second problem, Lauver says, was the way autistic children were grouped in district classrooms. John Matthew was put into a “mixed-autism classroom”—high-functioning kids with low-functioning kids, who may be highly intelligent but in some cases are nonverbal and prone to outbursts, and need assistance with many basic tasks. “You can’t lump together kids with such different needs, at different levels, requiring different methodologies into the same classroom without causing a calamity,” says Ramona Johnson, who taught in the district for 15 years.

The teachers in John Matthew’s classroom, Lauver says, were kept so busy by children with more severe autism that higher-functioning kids were usually left in the care of aides who needed only a high school education.

“It was hard,” she says. “He was picking up the behaviors of the low-functioning kids. His behavior was getting so out of control, he was running out of the classroom screaming, things he had never done in his life.”

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The school district is required by law to accept all students into its programs; it does not have the luxury that Lauver has at the Achievement Academy. She selects high-functioning autistic students, and most parents must be able to afford the tuition of $10,500 per year. The district, on the other hand, must serve 3,242 students across the autistic spectrum.

The district tries to tailor its services with Individualized Education Programs. Students are placed in the least-restrictive environment based on their needs, says Cynthia McCray, director of the district’s Low Incidence Disabilities Department. Meanwhile, services such as speech and occupational therapy are provided as needed.

For Lauver, though, the IEPs did not help. John Matthew’s troubles in the mixed-autism classroom were matched by difficulties when he spent a couple of hours each day in a mainstream classroom. With full student loads and lesson plans, teachers were unable to focus on John Matthew’s needs, and he was often shifted to the resource room—“the babysitting room,” Lauver says—where he spent most of his time coloring.

John Matthew was caught in the middle.

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Fifty percent of the district’s special-education classes are taught by “non-highly-qualified teachers,” McCray says. This is a significant improvement since 2006, when the number was 73 percent.

“There are some good teachers out there, trying to do their best,” says Barbara Naftal, a highly qualified CCSD special-education teacher who teaches a mixed-autism classroom. “But I’m not sure a lot of parents know the difference—which teachers are and are not qualified.”

In many ways, it’s a numbers game: Through the boom years, the district labored under the burden of breakneck growth at the same time as autism was increasingly being diagnosed among American children. Higher-education institutions across the country struggled to fill the need, but after the crash, state-budget wars made expansion of programs almost impossible.

In Clark County, McCray says, special education was not affected by budget cuts—state and federal laws require the district to maintain services for disabled children. Nonetheless, the legacy of boom, bust and budgetary trouble persists in Clark County classrooms. Rose Moore, a longtime educational disabilities advocate who was hired as a watchdog by the Advocacy Institute to track stimulus dollars spent on special education, says stopgap measures to put teachers in classrooms are taking their toll on both mainstream and special-ed programs. During the 2010-11 school year, CCSD had 431 teachers with emergency licenses—a situation she says amounts to “taking any Tom, Dick or Harry off the streets.”

But under Nevada law, McCray says, teachers in autism classrooms are required to hold a teaching license and have an autism endorsement—or to be working to complete an autism endorsement within three years. CCSD offers extensive mandatory training for teachers in autism programs, focusing on everything from boosting student performance to behavior management. The district offers additional training in curriculum-building, differentiated instruction and lesson planning.

Nonetheless, many parents of autistic children are looking for alternatives. The problem is, schools such as the Achievement Academy don’t come cheap. Under a June 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, parents of autistic children have a right to seek government reimbursement for private school tuition—but they must demonstrate that their child’s IEP is not meeting his or her needs.

That’s often a losing battle. The state has a strong incentive to argue that IEPs work: The cash-strapped state can hardly relish the prospect of funding private education for thousands of special-needs children.

In the meantime, scholarships provide a measure of help—30 percent of Achievement Academy students receive tuition assistance.

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When Nancy Niparko, a pediatric neurologist from Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital diagnosed my twins eight years ago, she had an insight that I’ve never forgotten. “I believe Asperger’s syndrome is an extreme obsessive-compulsive illness,” she said.

As I watch my twins, now 11, pursue their interests today, it’s not disability that I see. Something unique is going on in their minds—something that deserves to be nurtured and guided.

When I think of such autistic role models as Temple Grandin—an acclaimed professor of animal science at Colorado State University—it seems clear there is a significant overlap between high-functioning autism and genius. I met Grandin during my 2005 visit to the Morgan Center, and I couldn’t help wondering, Where would she be if she had been forced to give up her obsession with cows for more “appropriate” scholastic subjects?

What places like the Morgan Center and the Achievement Academy offer is the promise that the obsessions that come with Asperger’s are not an albatross but a launching pad into the world. Each week, academy students publish The Class Action News. It’s not just a newspaper—it’s many newspapers: Each student publishes a particular article about his or her interest, talent—or obsession. The goal is to help the students develop academic skills necessary to become fluent readers and writers.

“We give our students opportunities to be leaders here,” Lauver says. “They’re not afraid to raise their hands, speak their minds. No one here laughs at them. We nurture the extraordinary, unique mind of an autistic child.”