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 email@example.com
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
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