By Michael Flynn, STAFF WRITER
Oct. 4, 2004 7:33 p.m.
"For the past two weeks, we've been doing conversations," Randles said, including learning how to shake hands, maintain a proper distance from your counterpart and say good-bye. A game called "facial expression bingo" helps students discern the different moods of people they encounter.
The lessons are crucial for the Veritas Christian Academy students in Randles' class, each of whom has Asperger Syndrome or "high-functioning" autism, brain disorders that impair communication and social skills.
In 2000, Veritas established a School Within A School program to provide individualized and structured educational experiences for children with Asperger Syndrome and related autism conditions.
The program's focus, said executive director Mark Muir, is providing specially tailored instruction in communication and other life skills while integrating its students into the school's standard curriculum.
"That's what makes our program distinctive," Muir said. "To be successful in the real world, they need to be taught in the real world." Muir said students with Asperger Syndrome have average or above average intelligence but "need the additional support of School Within A School to be successful in a mainstream classroom."
Mills River's Melanie Hancock, mother of third-grade student Rebecca Hancock, said her daughter is thriving in the school's supportive environment.
"It's made her a different person. They love her here," she said. "And they are helping us help her - the stress is not as great as parents."
The program's leaders hope to double the current 12- student enrollment and turn the program into a template that other educational institutions can follow. "We hope this will become a model program for children with Asperger's," said Veritas Head of School Kay Belknap.
`I do a lot better now'
Autism is a lifelong neurobiological condition that is often diagnosed in early childhood. Individuals with the condition have difficulty understanding verbal and nonverbal communication and learning customary ways of relating to people and events around them.
According to the Autism Society of North Carolina, about 30,000 people living in the state have autism. Nationally, the number of people with the condition grew by 173 percent during the last decade.
One of the reasons for the increasing number of diagnoses is the growing awareness of the range of autism disorders, including Asperger Syndrome, said Catherine Faherty, a psychoeducation specialist in Asheville. But experts suspect there may be other reasons for the rising numbers that are not yet understood, said Faherty, who is with TEACCH, an autism treatment and education group that is a division of UNC-Chapel Hill's school of medicine.
Someone with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism doesn't have the same cognitive difficulties as an individual with classic autism, but faces some similar social and emotional challenges, said Dr. Greg Narron, a psychiatrist with Family Life & Learning Center in Asheville.
"These children can be significant contributors to society, but their developmental path is more difficult," said Narron, who is on the Veritas board of directors. "This program acknowledges their strengths and helps them find success among their peer group," he said.
The program's students receive instruction in social and communication skills each day, and are often accompanied by one of the program's instructors while attending regular classes at Veritas. Students also go home with a daily log that allows parents to follow their child's activities and make their own notations for instructors.
School Within A School seventh-grade student Chris Prechter said the additional guidance has helped him relax and succeed with his schoolwork.
"I was really stressed and didn't get the good grades I wanted," he said about his experience before joining the program. "I'd always get angry and frustrated. I do a lot better now."
Faherty praised the Veritas program for "helping children understand themselves, including aspects relating to autism." Many children with autism disorders are strong visual learners, she said, but don't have the same auditory capabilities. "The challenge for teachers and parents is to understand this unique style of thinking and learning and how the children interact with their environment," she said.
School Within A School Program Director Marlou deVera, a former job coach for adults with autism, said early development of social skills is critical to the student's future academic and professional life. She also has a 16- year-old son with autism in public school.
In Buncombe County, about 135 of the county school system's 25,000 students have autism disorders, said Director of Special Services Jane Stephens. An additional 1,227 students have learning disabilities, she said, such as difficulty with reading or math skills.
"There's a lot of different options just like other exceptional students," she said about how the school system approaches autistic students. "We want kids to be in the right classroom as much as possible. Depending on what level of intervention they need, they may spend all, part or not so much of the day in a regular classroom."
`It's like a gift'
Mark and Teri Muir founded Veritas' School Within A School after searching for a program they felt best served the needs of their son, Christopher, who is now an eighth-grade student in the program. The Muirs, who moved to Western North Carolina from Southern California and are co-executive directors of the program, combined elements of other programs to create School Within A School.
The program's Christian focus is critical to its mission, Mark Muir said. "It allows these kids to be accepted," he said. "And it helps the other kids learn to accept kids with differences."
As with other students enrolling in Veritas, at least one parent must sign a statement affirming his or her Christian faith. There are about 250 students in the entire academy, which offers a classical and Christian education and is in the former Fletcher Elementary School building on Cane Creek Road. Opened six years ago, the academy will have its first senior class graduate in May.
The annual tuition at School Within A School is $17,500, Muir said, though most students receive scholarship assistance. To cover a projected $250,000 operating deficit for the next two school years, the program is hosting a fund- raiser at the Grove Park Inn on Oct. 29.
Muir, the former chief marketing officer of a Fortune 500 company, said the joy of transforming the lives of kids through School Within A School has been a more satisfying endeavor. "That feeling is much more rewarding than the thrill of business success," he said.
Prechter, who said his favorite subjects are literature, math and theology, noted he has learned something special in the program - how to be himself.
"There's nothing bad about Asperger Syndrome or autism," he said. "It's just that your brain functions differently. It's kind of like a gift."
Contact Flynn at 232-2935 or MLFlynn@ashevill.gannett.com.
BOX: First Fundraiser Gala
On Oct. 29, the School Within A School at Veritas Christian Academy will host a special black tie (optional) evening to support scholarships in the school's program for children with Asperger Syndrome and related autism disorders. The goal is to raise $250,000 to cover the program's projected operating deficit during the next two school years. Office Depot is the evening's presenting sponsor. A reception and silent auction will start at 6 p.m.; dinner, entertainment and live auction with honorees Irwin and Betty Helford will begin at 7 p.m. Price is $500 per person; for tickets and more information, call (828) 681- 0546, or visit firstname.lastname@example.org
What Causes Autism?
Autism is a brain disorder, present from birth. What causes autism in specific cases is still unknown. It is known that the psychological environment in which a child grows up does not cause autism. Some research suggests a physical problem affecting parts of the brain that process language and information coming in from the senses. Other research points to an imbalance of some brain chemicals. Genetic factors are often involved. Some people have suggested that there are environmental factors at work and research is being conducted in that area. Autism may be a result of a combination of several "causes."
How Can People with Autism be Helped?
Autism is treatable. Early diagnosis and intervention is very important. Studies have shown that all people with autism can improve with proper individualized instruction. There are a variety of treatment methods available that may help improve the person with autism's ability to understand information and interact with others. Most people with autism become more responsive to others as they learn to understand the world around them.
Source: Autism Society of North Carolina
Swing for the fences A new generation of people with disabilities is heading for the work force By JEANNIE KEVER
Andrew Holton slid out of the car, a sheaf of fliers in hand, and strode into the Executive Inn in Brookshire.
His curly brown hair neatly brushed, his pants and oxford-cloth shirt crisp, the 6-foot-2-inch Holton waved briefly to the preoccupied desk clerk and pulled the previous week's fliers from their plastic stand, replacing them with his updated version.
At 22, fresh out of school, he was on the job and earning a paycheck.
Jobs are the next frontier for Holton and his peers, the generation of young adults who pioneered the movement of people with disabilities into public school classrooms.
When Holton left the Katy Independent School District's vocational training program last spring, his main concern was finding a job.
"A paying job," he said.
Holton has a form of autism and Tourette's syndrome, and although he had a lot going for him -- a Katy High School diploma, a friendly personality and a savvy family who understood the challenges but also believed in the possibilities -- the obstacles were daunting.
The reality of autism, a developmental disability that affects communication and social skills, made job-hunting far more complicated than circling a few classified ads.
In the coming years, U.S. employers increasingly will find people with cognitive disabilities among those looking for work. Diagnoses of autism alone have skyrocketed in the past 15 years, up from about one in every 5,000 births to one in 166.
Holton's résumé lists his accomplishments, including a raft of volunteer positions and the rank of Eagle Scout, but it also acknowledges his differences. "On occasion he will say things out loud that others would only think to themselves, yet Andrew speaks from the heart," one section noted.
His mother, Scottie Holton, knows more about job markets for people with disabilities than most parents; as a counselor whose clients include families with special-needs kids, she has seen too many people graduate from high school onto the living-room couch.
But she also knows this: "People who have a child with a disability want the very same thing everybody wants for their grown-up children: something to do, people who care about them."
Reliable statistics are scarce, but everyone agrees that people with disabilities are less likely to be employed than those without a disability.
That's beginning to change, said Roger Webb, executive director of the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities.
"It's less unusual now to see people with a severe disability, whether it's a person with mental retardation or a person in a wheelchair," Webb said, "so I think employers realize that's just a part of life."
Life nudged forward by the law and practical experience with kids with disabilities mainstreaming in the schools.
`I love my job' Holton had a head start on work, landing a part-time job before he left school in May.
Every week, he and Karen Henderson made the rounds of businesses in Katy and as far west as Brookshire, delivering an advertising flier called the Coffee News.
For those few hours, Holton was working, aided by the 37-year-old Henderson, who serves as an assistant to several people with disabilities. He doesn't drive, so she acted as chauffeur, waiting in the parking lot while he ducked inside several dozen restaurants and offices.
In between stops, the two settled into an easy camaraderie. The Holtons hired Henderson after meeting her through Special Olympics, where she routinely cheers on athletes and where Andrew Holton competes in several sports. He rents a small suite in her home in Katy, dividing his time between there and his parents' home nearby.
"All right, dude," Henderson said as he climbed back in after a stop one day this summer. "What's next?"
As they headed down Interstate 10, Holton returned to his favorite subject of the day, the 31-inch amberjack he'd caught during a Gulf fishing trip a few days earlier, reeling it in as Henderson was hanging over the side of the boat, seasick.
Holton loves to fish and could have talked all day about the trophy-size specimen, something Henderson bore in good humor.
"Karen, what did you think when I yelled `Fish on'?" he asked.
"I thought you were a nut case," she said somberly.
Henderson is a native of Scotland who arrived in Houston by way of Canada and New Jersey. She had worked at a hospice in New Jersey, and she views the role she assumed after moving here as just another form of helping those who need her.
"It's not work," she said. "It's a pleasure."
Henderson has taken Holton to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels and to a local pool hall. They listen to country music, watch fishing shows on TBS and cook for friends and family.
Her presence sets Holton apart from the other Coffee News delivery people, said Brownie Shott, who produces the double-sided publication filled with advertising, trivia and lighthearted stories. But that's not necessarily bad, she said.
Shott is active in the Katy schools on behalf of her son, who has multiple disabilities, and after hearing that the district's special-education division needed businesses as training sites and potential employers, she decided to help.
When a route became available, the school recommended Holton. "He's a great people person," Shott said.
Holton files a weekly report detailing how many fliers were left from the previous week and how many he put in their place.
"At least two or three weeks out of the month, when he faxes his report to me, he writes, 'I love my job,' " Shott said. "The fact that he needs a support person is different, but he probably takes better care than my route people without disabilities, because he's incredibly proud of his job."
The family's center Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning some people are more severely affected than others. In general, people with autism have trouble understanding and communicating with others.
Research is continuing into the cause, which is believed to be at least partly genetic. It affects four times as many boys as girls.
There is no cure, and fitting in with society is a lifelong challenge.
Holton recognizes the nonverbal cues most people rely upon -- a narrowing of the eyes, a quick frown -- but he doesn't always know how to interpret them. And while he understands the concept of joking, he tends to take things literally.
As a child, he hated storybooks in which animals wore clothes. As an adult, he likes nonfiction, especially natural history.
Mostly, he likes fishing. Also baking apple pies.
He began baking in high school, and he has given away hundreds of pies. He cooks, too, often with Henderson, although she's more freewheeling about improvising, and he likes to stick with his original plan. (He often develops his own recipes, considering it somehow dishonest to use someone else's.)
Intense interest in just a few subjects is a common trait in people with autism. Holton takes medication to help control his symptoms of Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary motor and vocal tics.
The whole story But his disabilities are only part of Holton's story.
"We really love it when people appreciate Andrew, because we think he's cool," said his 21-year-old sister, Alison, a junior arts management and museum studies major at the University of Tulsa.
"Our family revolves around Andrew, and that's OK. We've done some really cool things because of Andrew."
The accommodations began early. Scottie Holton had a background in child development, and she and her husband, John, realized that their first child was different while he was still a baby.
"He was doing things, but not quite like everyone else," she said. He had low muscle tone, and problems with balance and movement.
They lived in Beaumont, where John Holton worked for Exxon Mobil. He still works there, commuting to the family's home in Katy on weekends and at midweek.
Andrew was evaluated by a orthopedist when he was 9 months old and by a neurologist when he was 2. Doctors didn't detect a problem. But by then, Andrew had a younger sister.
"When Alison was born, she was so quick to do everything, and we didn't teach her anything," Scottie Holton said. "We taught Andrew everything."
When Andrew was 3, the neurologist determined that he had pervasive developmental delay, a broad term for autism.
"We didn't know if he'd be able to walk," John Holton said. "We didn't know if he'd be able to read."
Each milestone was doubly sweet.
The family moved to Spring Branch and then to Katy in search of opportunities for Andrew.
"We knew Andrew was different," his father said. "We knew he wasn't going to be a star athlete, a star student."
But they were determined that he have a chance.
Scottie Holton attended a conference in Montreal the summer before Andrew entered first grade and returned home convinced that inclusion -- mixing special-education students, often accompanied by an aide, with the other kids in classes and extracurricular activities -- was the answer. That's common practice now, but it was a new concept then.
During middle school, a doctor suggested the disability might be described as Asperger syndrome -- a milder form of autism -- and the family has since used that term.
Mostly, they simply incorporated his interests into the family routine. Fishing trips to Colorado became their standard vacation. Weekends were often spent at Lake Conroe or the fishing lake in Katy's Peckham Park.
"I caught on real early that Andrew needed us," Alison said. "I didn't want to make his life tougher."
School to work As the number of autism diagnoses rises, experts say the American workplace will face the same challenges that hit public schools more than a decade ago.
Debbie Wilkes, director of developmental programs for the Richardson Independent School District north of Dallas, reaches for a grander analogy.
"I think you need to think about it as a civil-rights issue," she said. "It's going to take time."
But work already is a looming issue, the place where the public investment in education could pay off.
People in their 20s grew up seeing people with disabilities in their schools. As they enter the work force, Wilkes said, they're more accepting there, too.
Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism and a board member of the Autism Society of America, said that employers don't always understand the social accommodations needed by someone with autism.
And people with autism may not understand "the cultural norms of work -- who you go to for supervision, what are the things you can say or not say to co-workers, those things in the work culture that are hidden but make a difference."
In search of success Andrew Holton started the summer in search of success but unsure whether he would find it.
He had his job at the Coffee News, and he was signed up for three weeks as a volunteer counselor at Camp CAMP, for kids with disabilities.
He had a checking account and a savings account, but other questions were unsettled. He had thought about getting a driver's license and was curious about college, but both made him nervous.
Softball season ramped up at Special Olympics, and Holton assumed his place with the Katy Wolf Pack.
A new opportunity arose in July.
Lennar Homes was about to start its second round of three-month internships for athletes from Special Olympics teams. Lennar began working with the organization in 1998 to build Habitat for Humanity homes, teaching construction skills to the athletes.
Last year, the home builder began an internship program to introduce office skills.
Holton was one of three people recommended for this year's internships, and by mid-July he had a new wardrobe, a company badge, even a desk. With Henderson or a friend covering his Coffee News route, he has worked 25 hours a week at the homebuilder's central region headquarters in far west Houston, sorting and delivering mail, among other duties.
It has been a crash course in independence, but his supervisor said he is learning, including some of the intangible nuances of the workplace.
When the internship ends later this month, Holton's bio should be added to www.projectopportunity.com, a Web site reflecting the partnership among Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity and Lennar and advertising athletes to potential employers.
Once more, Andrew Holton will be looking for a job.