Monday, August 20, 2007

Autism school opens in Chambersburg

Autism school opens in Chambersburg
By KEITH PARADISE Staff writer

Less than a year ago, one in 166 people were diagnosed with autism.

Today, those numbers are one in 150.

Just as the amount of people being diagnosed with the disorder is increasing, so too are the number of facilities and methods to treat them.

Northwestern Human Services Inc.'s autism school will be opening its doors in Chambersburg for Wednesday for an information session from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Representatives from each school district and parents of autistic children have been invited to see the school and what it offers. The school will open to students when classes start Aug. 27.

The school was created to provide specialized teaching for autistic students - a service that is often unavailable in school districts.

"There are a lot of families that are frustrated with the autism services available in their districts," said Sharon Greene, director of the NHS school in Hermanie.

Autism is a neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime and is part of a group of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders. The disorder, which can usually be diagnosed in a child by the age of 3, occurs in all ethnic groups and males are four times as likely to be diagnosed with it than girls. Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others and can also lead to rigid routines and repetitive behaviors.

NHS was started in 1996 as behavioral support for schools and then opened the first school with an autism-based curriculum in Hermanie, Westmoreland County, in 2003. The school started out contacting individual school districts and offering its service. The school now has numerous school districts throughout the county referring students to them.

"There were a lot of parents out there asking, 'How am I going to educate my child?'" said Greene.

The curriculum concentrates on developing communication and life skills, behavioral, emotional and social development, and academic skills. The school also offers an individualized goal selection based on the appropriate needs of each student. Students are also given a monthly report card showing their progress and also giving parents goals that they can work with the child at home.

NHS also operates schools in Philadelphia, Carlisle and Altoona. The Chambersburg school is one of four that NHS is opening this year in Pennsylvania, along with Reading, State College and York. The Chambersburg school will be serving students from Franklin, Fulton and parts of Adams counties.

Parents cannot simply enroll their child in the school and pay a tuition. The child must first be recommended to the school by the school district after being assessed by staff from NHS and the district. A child is only recommended to the school if the district, NHS and parents agree that the school would provide the best learning environment. The district would then provide tuition for the child's schooling.

Children ages 5 through 21 who have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are eligible for the school. The Chambersburg school currently has three classrooms available with enough space to accommodate five. All of the teachers hired by the school have training and experience in autism.

"We don't have any staff that can't help our kids," Greene said.

The goal for the students is for them to eventually transition into the least restrictive environment possible and for them to have the skills needed to be productive when they're adults.

"The goal is to be able to get them mainstreamed back into the school district and society," said Lou Ann Jones, director of the Chambersburg school.