Monday, July 15

New Charter School Focuses on Autism

At first glance, Spectrum Academy seems like a regular school. But closer look into a classroom will reveal one child sitting on a bouncy ball, another wearing earphones to focus on the teacher, perhaps another looking into a small screen in his desk.

Spectrum Academy is a new charter school specializing in children on the autism spectrum. Opening this fall in Pleasant Grove, UT, the school has been designed with the specialized needs of its students in mind.

Spectrum Academy Director of Development Brad Nelson says activities that would be frowned upon at other schools are allowed at Spectrum, for the students’ sensory development. Spectrum Academy takes into consideration the students’ unique needs and created a unique design.

Kelly Clark, Chief Mom in Charge, at says, “The unique sensory needs of children with autism often get in the way of their ability to learn. For example, the brightness of the fluorescent lights or the noises of a typical classroom may prove too be overwhelming for some; while others may have extreme difficulty sitting still and can only focus if they are sitting on a bouncy ball or balance stool. We definitely need more schools like Spectrum!”

The walls at Spectrum are painted soothing colors, with lots of natural sunlight in every room. There are also plenty of small break rooms adjacent to the classrooms, for students to use when they need a break from the classroom environment.

“It takes them out of a resource class at a typical school,” Nelson says “and puts them in a more conducive and comfortable environment that is right for them.” He goes on to say that with autism being a social disorder, many students on the spectrum can’t function in a typical classroom.

Faculty and staff at Spectrum will not be scared away by the meltdowns that are quite common for children with autism. These behaviors are “procedural at Spectrum, instead of odd.” The school will also do its best to eliminate distractions that tend to bring on these meltdowns.

The Spectrum building is currently at 40,000 square feet, planning a 20,000-square-foot expansion next year. They will start out with kindergarten through eighth grade, but will add one grade each year until it becomes a K-12 facility that will eventually house 650 students.

There are currently 32 classrooms, and the class sizes will be small, at around 12-15 students for every teacher/para-professional pair. Each student will also receive a total of 45 minutes to an hour of social scenario training each day.

There are only two or three schools like Spectrum Academy in the country, but it is a desperately needed resource. The school allows children on the spectrum to be themselves, and in time, they will hopefully learn independent self-regulation, so they can function successfully across a variety of settings.

“We are a school. We are not a treatment center,” Nelson says. “We have made these specifications in order to facilitate learning and education, and accommodate student needs.”

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