Starting a School for Kids With Autism
THE VISTA SCHOOL
Backstory In 1996, Mike Jarman and his wife, Deirdre, began thinking about how they were going to educate their 2-year-old twins, Sean and Patrick, when the boys were diagnosed with autism. It was obvious that they were miles behind their typically developing peers, but back then, before awareness had been raised about the effectiveness of intense early intervention, the local protocol was to give each child just an hour a week of play therapy. "It quickly became clear to Deirdre and me that the boys' delays were severe, and that one hour was wholly inadequate," says Mike. The couple, who also have two other children, knew they had to do something on their own if their boys were ever going to reach their potential. They learned about a type of therapy used to treat children with autism called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which teaches skills by breaking them down into small components. It resonated with them, but it wasn't offered by their local public agencies. So the Jarmans hired their own therapists, and soon both kids were getting 40 hours of ABA-based treatments a week. The results were quick and dramatic. "After six months, Patrick, who at first wasn't even able to recognize his name, was doing everything you asked him to do," says Mike. "And Sean was talking for the first time," In less than four years, Sean was able to start first grade at a mainstream school. Patrick wasn't, and none of the local public schools seemed like the right fit, so the Jarmans began the process to start their own school that serves kids from ages 3 to 21. They rounded up local parents of kids with autism -- as well as a group of experts that included a child psychiatrist, an accountant who understood medical billing, a litigator, an educator, and an autism activist -- to help. That first year, unable to get their hands on the public funding needed to make their plan a reality, two board members each took out a second mortgage on their home, allowing the school (which at that time had just four students) to open. Since then, the state has provided them with the funding they needed to keep going.
Mission The Jarmans are striving to bring the best autism treatment to children who need it, even though the price tag is beyond the reach of their families. Parents currently don't pay for tuition. Since Vista is considered both a school and a licensed medical facility, tuition for the school portion of the program comes from local or federal funds, while the medical services (such as board-certified behavior analysts who work alongside the teachers and draw up a behavior plan for each child that helps him stay on task throughout the day) are paid for by Medicaid or the kids' private health insurance.
Then and Now In February 2002, Vista opened its doors in a small converted space in an office building. Today, the student body has grown to 81 kids who travel from neighboring counties, and the school occupies a four-building campus. So far, half a dozen Vista students have made such large gains that they've eventually been able to transfer to mainstream schools. "Given the fact that we only get the most seriously affected kids from the school districts -- the kids they don't think they can help -- graduations are always a huge celebration," says Mike.