Holding a round disc, Greyson Batz pretends to drive a bus.
He turns the wheel and bounces in his seat.
“Where are we going?” Maria Serrano-Lopez asks her students at Intermountain Academy, a private school for children with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
“Toys R Us,” says Greyson, who is 8.
When the imaginary bus stops, Serrano-Lopez tells the kids they need money to purchase a toy.
“How much do you want, Greyson?” she asks.
“Count with me, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” Serrano-Lopez says as she places coins in Greyson’s hand.
Greyson counts along, as he unknowingly receives a math lesson.
Imaginative play like this was a milestone Greyson never reached as a younger child.
“He wouldn’t touch a toy, now he does,” Serrano-Lopez said. “He was really in his own world.”
Through games and repetition, Serrano-Lopez taught Greyson to imitate without forcing him.
“I led him to see how I was interacting, then one day he started playing with dinosaurs,” Serrano-Lopez recalled. “For him to pretend play, that’s amazing.”
AUTISM IN ARIZONA
There are no specific numbers for Tucson, but to illustrate how many families with children on the spectrum are searching for schools — Intermountain Academy has a waiting list of 200 children.
Though the school plans to add two classes per year until it reaches its capacity of 120, it still won’t be able to accommodate that entire waiting list.
To help fill the need, Intermountain Academy hopes to expand to another campus in the future, said Paul O’Rourke, the school’s director of communications.
Tucson Unified School District has 490 children with autism this year.
One in 66, or 1.5 percent of 8-year-old children in Arizona are identified as having autism spectrum disorder or ASD.
“There are definitely more students identified as being with autism,” said Maura Clark-Ingle, director of exceptional education for TUSD. “Students are identified at a younger age. … We’re really excited about that because we now know students that are struggling and do have autism or are on the spectrum can get services earlier instead of waiting until they’re older and have had trouble in school.”
And each one of those students has entirely different issues, needs and abilities.
Southern Arizona parents looking for programs that work best for their child have more options than ever — public, private, online and home school.
Once a student in a public school is screened and identified as having autism, an individualized education program meeting is planned with a team that typically includes teachers, exceptional education teachers, a psychologist, the principal and parents to discuss the child’s needs.
“The programs that are developed at the IEP meeting are so individual because each student needs something different,” Clark-Ingle said. “That’s the beauty of having the team process. It’s not a cookie-cutter process.”
Services discussed at the meeting include speech and language therapy and behavioral and social support. The IEP meeting lays out what a whole day would look like for the student.
“What does this student need to be successful and to really flourish? Not to just be OK,” Clark-Ingle said. “We really want them to flourish and learn skills they need in school and we look at the child as an adult and what kind of social skills, self-help skills will they need to be successful and independent when they grow into being an adult. That’s what public schools do well.”
All TUSD schools are equipped to assist students with autism. However, Clark-Ingle said Sewell and Wright elementary schools, as well as Tucson High have particularly good exceptional education programs.
The first goal of TUSD’s exceptional education program is to give students access to typical peers in the general-education population. Self-contained classes are available for children with more significant needs.
“We don’t want them to feel like that self-contained class is their forever home,” Clark-Ingle said. “Our goal is to have them in general ed as much as possible because we know that’s where great learning takes place.”
Angela Nelson’s 11-year-old son, Drake, has been in public school since kindergarten and had a mostly good experience at Kellond Elementary.
“School itself was good,” Nelson said. “Kellond had some very caring, dedicated teachers and staff to guide him. And the general-ed kids really took the ‘be kind’ motto to heart and accepted Drake even though he’s different.”
That being said, the therapy he received was limited. In his IEP he was scheduled to have 90 minutes per week for speech, but often he only went for 60 minutes, Nelson said.
Drake excelled in academics and was asked to help other kids on projects. He was also one of the first kids to be included in the fourth-grade GATE program for gifted children.
Intermountain Academy, on Tucson’s west side, opened four years ago for children in grades K-12 who have an autism diagnosis.
Class sizes are small, with about 10 students per class and a teacher-to-student ratio of 1-to-3, said O’Rourke, the school’s communications director.
Intermountain Academy, which is part of Intermountain Centers, prides itself on being the only school in Tucson specifically for students with autism, although at least one other serves mostly students with autism.
Greyson attended a public TUSD school until second grade, but his mom started getting nervous about the higher grades.
“He’s not someone that inclusion worked for,” Amanda Hinton said. “He has some behaviors that hurt himself or others, so because of that I was very anxious about making sure he received the appropriate therapy for what he was dealing with.”
When she heard that Intermountain Academy offered Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA therapy, she thought it would be a good fit for her son.
ABA aims to help extinguish some behaviors associated with autism, such as hand flapping, with a goal of helping children fit into the world around them. Although some critics say ABA can rob children of behaviors that might give them emotional comfort, it remains the gold standard in autism therapy.
“It uses scientific laws of behavior that have been experimentally confirmed, and it uses very clear instructions that can be replicated by most anyone to specify how to change behavior,” said Kyle Lininger, director of the school.
Children who attend Intermountain Academy have access to behavioral therapy in school as well as in their homes, Lininger said.
“We’re serving people in the community in the cultural and environmental context in which they live. … So unlike traditional schools, these kids are getting the same services they have at school translated into home,” Lininger said. “We give support with the hope they can transition into less restrictive settings or a general education setting.”
Since attending Intermountain Academy, Greyson’s behavior has improved dramatically. And his mother has peace of mind knowing she doesn’t have to worry about him at school.
“I feel safe here. I feel like he’s not gonna be lost,” Hinton said. “It’s not, ‘Oh well, Greyson doesn’t like to do math and he hits, so I’m just gonna put him over here.’ They’re going to challenge him and work through these challenges even though they might get hit or scratched on a daily basis.”
Each school day includes musical therapy, physical education, math, reading, language arts and specific programs catered to social skills.
On Tucson’s east side, a group of parents took action when the private school their children with autism were attending closed in December 2013.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of sending her back to public school,” said Jennifer Moore of her daughter — who is now 15 and had been in public school through third grade. “It was fine until it wasn’t. Then it was a nightmare. Her special-ed teacher went on maternity leave, and in her place they put an aide and she wasn’t really qualified and didn’t have the tools necessary to work with my daughter. She had this personality that was like, ‘Don’t cross this line’ and my daughter is like, ‘I’m gonna put my toe over the line.’ It went from nice behavior to being out of class in three weeks.”
Moore used Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account funds to send her daughter to what was then called the Abbie Loveland Tuller School and hire an aide to be with her.
Families can apply for state money earmarked for their child’s education to help pay for private or home schools. For children with special needs, the money can also help pay for vocational or life-skills education, psychological or education evaluations, assistive technology rentals, Braille translation services and more.
Awards for children with special needs range from $3,000 to $33,500.
For Moore’s daughter, the change was transformational.
“By sixth grade she had a best friend and was having sleepovers, and as a parent with a child with autism, those are things you think your child will never have,” she said.
When she learned the school was going to close, Moore and a few parents took action.
They repurposed an autism-related nonprofit held by one of the parents, and the Abbie School opened its doors in January 2014. It now has 34 students in grades second through 10th, with a student-to-teacher ratio of 8-to-1.
“I think it’s really important for public school to be strong, but I think there need to be other options,” Moore said. “Kids with special needs need choice. … She (Moore’s daughter) knows she’s different, so being with all the other kids was really stressful for her. She didn’t want the support they were going to provide because that meant looking different. Here, everybody is different.”
Unlike Intermountain, Abbie School is not yet accredited, but that’s something the administration is working toward.
In addition to academics, students choose from electives such as photography, drama, orchestra, student council and home economics.
While the Abbie School takes kids with an assortment of special needs, two-thirds of them are on the autism spectrum.
Now that Drake, 11, is advancing to middle school, his mother, Angela Nelson, decided to send him to Abbie School rather than public school because she worried about bullies and things like transitioning from class to class.
“It takes him at least 10 minutes to center himself,” Nelson said. “In middle school, he’d have to do that (change classes) six times a day, adding up to a lot of time and potentially missed classwork. Abbie School transitions, but they have accommodations if he gets out of sorts.”
HOME AND ONLINE SCHOOLING
Ciara Martinez’s daughter, Isis, was 2 when she stopped talking.
Martinez took her to several doctors before receiving an autism diagnosis. Further testing found she has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic mutation affecting brain development.
Isis is 7 now and nonverbal.
The family lives in Marana and there are no private schools for kids with special needs nearby. Martinez said public school was not an option for them.
“We wanted her included in regular-ed classrooms and they wouldn’t work with us on that and I knew it would be a fight,” Martinez said. “I’m not willing to go down that road. It’ll be a heartbreak for me.”
So Martinez applied for ESA money to purchase adaptive equipment and hire a para professional, or teacher’s aide, so she could home-school her daughter.
Isis, now in second grade, uses a Tobii communication device — a computer-based tool that uses lasers to connect with her eyes. If she gazes at a certain picture for a few seconds, the computer says the word out loud. She uses the device to do math, reading, learn colors and communicate.
“She’s doing really well with it, actually,” Martinez said.
At 9 years old, Brandon Sosa’s autism made it difficult for him to communicate and an overcrowded classroom in public school made it impossible for him to learn.
His mother gave him an online test and found that he had regressed in his math and reading skills. He was coming home with bruises from biting himself because of the stress.
“He would come home with a notebook full of drawings, no homework and nothing learned,” Victoria de Sosa said. “Brandon is extremely smart, but it’s also difficult as parents because we didn’t know how to support him. We went to every therapy and repeated it every day at home and even though they didn’t give him homework, I gave him homework.”
At the end of the first semester of third grade, everything came to a head for the Sosa family.
“In third grade I had trouble communicating and I didn’t understand why others were mocking me, just that they were and it came to a climax,” Brandon said. “I came home one night with words that some kids had said to me. Repeating them I had said that I don’t belong in this world. … I may not have been able to communicate well, but I was able to understand for the most part.”
Victoria spoke with one of Brandon’s special education teachers, who confirmed that Brandon was being bullied by students and sometimes mistreated by other teachers.
“I asked Brandon if he wanted to go back to school and he said no,” Victoria recalled. “And I said, ‘You don’t have to. We will find a school and this will be a world where you belong.’”
The Sosa family enrolled Brandon in the Arizona Virtual Academy.
“Our first goal as parents was to raise his self-esteem,” Victoria said. “When I spoke to teachers and counselors at Arizona Virtual Academy I said he may not get the best grades, but that’s not our goal. They were very open. They said he would be able to move at his own pace and that’s what we did.”
Arizona Virtual Academy provided a loaner computer, books, supplies to do chemistry labs and artwork for school. Lessons were done in real time with a teacher online and work was done at Brandon’s own pace. If he needed extra help he was able to ask the teacher directly.
Brandon is 18 now and graduated high school in May. He is attending the University of Arizona this fall to major in physiology, hoping to help other kids with autism and to help those without autism understand the disorder better.
Over the summer, he attended the New Start summer program at the UA to learn about college life. He took two classes — leadership and anthropology — and got an A in both.
“Over the past few years I started sympathizing with others who have gone through similar experiences I have because of my autism,” he said. “I wanted to help them and I decided to look at my strengths and determine the best way to help them and I look at different qualities. I am patient. I am analytical.
“I want to help a person directly instead of just research. I decided to go into medicine and I believe I’d like to work in the field of neurology. The study of the brain. I feel that would be the best way to help others like me and help others understand people like me.”