Empowering Education for Kids with Autism

Children’s Home Academy for Autism bridges the gap in educational services for youth on the spectrum.

by Dan Ramos, Children’s Home Association of Illinois
Dan Ramos
As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, AFA director Dan Ramos has unique insights into the students’ needs.

Walking down the hallways, there is nothing visually different about the students. Once you find your way into the classroom, however, you may notice the ways in which they behave, learn and communicate can be quite contrary to the norm. Individuals with autism commonly require additional support and structured environments in order to fully access their education. The Children’s Home Academy for Autism (AFA) is equipped with the supports and resources they need to achieve success in and out of the classroom. 

The Academy for Autism works to empower students to reach their full potential academically, behaviorally and emotionally. It provides small class sizes, individualized attention to sensory needs, and behavioral support for challenging behaviors. Specialists and educators are interwoven within the classrooms to assist students at a 2:1 ratio of staff to student. 

Addressing the “Whole Child”
With each generation of students, more and more is asked of our country’s educators to address the “whole child” —behaviorally, emotionally and academically. The asks are much larger in specialized education, as the students’ needs are increasingly challenging to meet. Parents of children with autism become educational navigators and advocates in what can be a confusing process with lots of paperwork, appointments, tough conversations and difficult choices. Simplifying and personalizing this process is vital to assisting a family and their child.

As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, my role as director of AFA is twofold: provide the best possible special education services for students on the spectrum, and encourage the teachers on my team to go above and beyond for them—as so many teachers have done for my son. I know the difference those teachers made in his life; the opportunity to do the same for someone else is what drives us.

Some children simply require a little extra support in order to be successful in school. Others require intensive behavior support, alternative academic programming, and behavior techniques overseen by specialists. No matter the need, AFA works hard each day to provide the absolute best educational environment for every student from kindergarten to 12th grade. 

Success Milestones
So, how do we know that what we’re doing is working? What does success look like? For our K-3 students, simple behaviors like sitting for periods of time to complete a task, forming lines or requesting a bathroom break represent major breakthroughs. These seemingly normal parts of being a student can be extremely difficult or not at all intuitive for children with autism. Once met with the right interventions by a team of professionals, they are able to operate like any other student and remain engaged in the classroom.

We see students incorporating the “word of the week” into their own experiences using pronouns (i.e. “I like pizza,” or “We like Saturdays.”). These short statements represent a significant struggle for many on the spectrum. In fact, some students come to AFA entirely non-verbal. With the hard work and patience of staff, a high school-aged nonverbal student can learn to communicate with teachers when they become overwhelmed and need a break. The student can then self-soothe and return to class. 

Success is when our students become able to enjoy family dinner at a restaurant—another seemingly normal part of life that can present severe challenges to those with autism. The ability to self-soothe and reduce the feelings of panic in social settings are major wins that parents and teachers celebrate. 

We constantly update our facility to provide areas for functional programming where students can practice daily life skills to promote their own autonomy. Our classrooms are adaptive and innovative, providing them with the potential for the highest level of independence. 

Success for a student enrolled at AFA may look a little different than a traditional student, but it is success nonetheless. The small steps we take make a huge impact on our young people and their families. 

The world is quickly changing to meet the needs of kids on the spectrum. It can be both challenging and rewarding. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s great to see my child grow. As a special education administrator, I look forward to continuing to empower students and celebrate the transformations made in their lives. PM

To learn more about AFA and Children’s Home, visit chail.org

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