“We’re horrified at this suggestion to have another segregated setting for children with autism in every county in New Jersey,” said Diana Autin, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, a nonprofit group that assists families. “It would also send a message to parents that children with autism can’t be included.”
But Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy and educational group, said Mr. Christie’s proposal for specialized autism schools would provide a much-needed alternative for some families. Many districts, she said, lack the staff, training and resources to educate children with autism.
“What I see is the governor has a vision to expand the continuum of options for our students,” Dr. Meyer said. “There are currently not enough high-quality school options for children with autism. Not every child is being educated in an effective program.”
Full circle, the question remains: public vs. private. Governor Christie must take into account the very impact of what the future holds for adults with autism. How can he prepare our children, both those with autism and without special needs? How can a foundation be built for advancing the futures of our children, if they are segregated, seen and not heard?
The statement on the Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism website states:
“As a society, we have an obligation to secure a brighter future for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. By taking action now, we can ensure that adults with autism break free of the all-too-common status of “dependency” and become engaged, involved and ideally, tax-paying, members of their communities. It is time to develop and drive policies that provide for life-long living and learning with autism.”
Creating segregated schools might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our children will be further isolated as the years go by. This is a problem that requires creativity and tenacity, on both sides of the table.
Shannon Mullen writes in The Asbury Park Press:
Cindy Lee Parker of Tuckerton said her 16-year-old son, Jacob, who has autism, has already changed schools a half-dozen or so times. The prospect of yet another move, to an untested county school, did not sit well with her.
"What model are you going to use, and who's going to set the standard for that?" she asked. "Who decides how each county is going to teach autistic children?"
Another critic of Christie's proposal was Deborah Lewinson, executive director and founder of the Allegro School, a private autism school in Cedar Knolls, Morris County.
Lewinson said a network of county schools inevitably would limit parents' access to private schools like hers, which have extensive experience and provide many after-school services that public schools can't match.
Lewinson, who has an adult autistic son, also doubts that county schools could do the job any cheaper than private schools. Allegro's annual tuition is $$82,352 per student.
The out-of-district tuition fee at Southern Regional High School in Stafford, where Jacob Parker is a student, is $85,000 per year.
"It's a very intensive, expensive program, no matter where you do it," Lewinson said, referring to the one-on-one instruction that many autistic students require.
But Maria Arnold, educational services director at the Douglass Developmental Center, which operates an autism school on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, believes Christie's idea is worth exploring.
"There's such a large number of children being diagnosed on the spectrum, there are too many of them to serve, and not enough programs," Arnold said. "We turn children away, the private schools turn children away. It shouldn't really be a competition, it should be a partnership."