One of the advantages of charter schools for autistic kids is the ability of parents to be very involved, as well as the small group size and personalized approach. Parental involvement is very important, whether contributing to the plans for one child, or joining together to address issues such as playground design and school services.  

In the new Arizona Autism Charter School in Phoenix, parents were gathered to vote on a new playground design.  While some of the designs looked similar, it soon became apparent that parents could identify features that needed improvement or worked well with students with autism.

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The rope bridge was good, one commented. It would require an autistic child to stay focused on keeping balance instead of zoning out, as he might on a steadier plastic or wooden bridge. An “omni-spin” component was almost unanimously championed. It would be no fun alone, after all, and a child with autism would need at least one other peer to help get it turning, requiring him to socialize and interact with others.

Keeping the autistic child engaged and mentally stimulated is the name of the game, school founder Diana Diaz told the group. Tailoring every detail to the needs of children with autism will be important as many eyes train on the future of the Arizona Autism Charter School.

Although at least 20 other charter schools for autistic students exist in 13 other states, this is the first such school approved in Arizona despite the state’s higher-incidence rate for the disorder.

The school will open in August with 90 spots, from kindergarten to fourth grade. Classrooms will be capped at nine students, with a 3-to-1 student-to-staff ratio. The curriculum will include speech, occupational and sensory therapy programs, as well as parent training.

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“Our goal and what we’ve been able to offer here is to be a game-changing school in our state,” Diaz said. “Children with autism grow to be adults with autism, so investing in this growing population now is in everybody’s best interest.”

Growing need

About one in 68 children nationwide has an autism-spectrum disorder, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.The number of persons afflicted is rising faster than any other developmental disability in the country, with rates having increased nearly 30 percent between 2008 and 2010. In Arizona, the incidence rates are higher: About one in 64 children in this state has autism, including one in 40 boys.

People with autism have impaired social interaction. Communication challenges are frequent, such as significantly delayed speech or incoherent babbling. A person with autism might never communicate audible sounds or develops speech much later than most others. Restrictive and repetitive behavior, such as banging one’s head on a wall, is another common symptom.

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