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Two Schools for Thought

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“Where Virginia is in terms of deciding what to do with children with autism is of critical concern,” Wiley says. She hopes Virginia will follow more innovative states such as Florida and adopt a policy where state and federal scholarship money can be applied in public or private educational settings.

“The philosophy is, we want to provide evidence-based treatment for children with autism,” Wiley says of Faison. Here, that means ABA. Faison plans to grow its site and services in the next few years. Ideally, it could expand to accommodate as many at 60 students who range in age from 2 to well past 7, Wiley says. Still, she recognizes that there are limitations and some families inevitably will be turned away. “I don’t think we can ever be the program that offers everything,” she says.

Jennifer Crawford has witnessed the difference ABA can make. As a teacher in Texas she helped five children with autism move into regular classrooms using ABA. Crawford is a board-certified behavior analyst. After moving with her husband to Virginia, Crawford co-founded and opened Spiritos School in September 2002. Spritos is a private day school in Midlothian that uses ABA methods. Enrollment is seven — pupils ranging in age from 2 to 12. Annual tuition is $50,000.

Parents sometimes aren’t prepared for the commitment ABA requires. “The first three months it really is hell,” Crawford says of the rigorous but individualized instruction. “I’m forcing a kid to follow through. A child with autism manipulates quicker than a regular child,” she says of the barriers that children with autism face.

What appears to be a small, white, frame house on Coalfield Road is home to Spiritos. On a recent weekday afternoon in one classroom, a young boy who looks to be about 5 sits in a chair, smiling. He is still. A teacher sits across from him at a small table. She instructs him to do simple tasks like point to a specific letter of the alphabet. He does.

“It’s a matter of breaking down skills and meeting a child where he is,” Crawford explains of ABA’s techniques. Not every child needs 40 hours a week, she says, but more ABA is needed in Virginia’s schools. In April — Autism Awareness Month — she plans to lobby the General Assembly for money to help fund the method. “This is the only proven thing that works,” she says. — B.W.

The Autism Program of Virginia
www.autismva.org

Faison School for Autism
1400 Westwood Ave.,
Richmond, Va. 23227
827-3801. www.vcuhealth.org/vtcc/fs

Spiritos School
400 Coalfield Road
Midlothian, Va. 23112
897-7440.

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