Students with autism find hope, independence at suburban day school

When students with autism require intense support – where do they go? A therapeutic day school – built by parents struggling to find resources for their children – offers hope and guides the way toward independence.

Just like in a typical elementary school classroom, the day starts with a few basics. It’s a routine the students can count on -- repetition, practice and one-on-one instruction.

Kelly Weaver, executive director and co-founder, Alexander Leigh Center for Autism: “We’re working on all the traditional skills, but we have a functional spin, which is an important piece. We’re actually teaching the kids to the way they learn here with autism.”

It’s called generalization – taking a task like counting and integrating it into daily life. The idea is to build the students’ natural ability to use the skill in different places and with different people – something that’s often a challenge for those with autism.

Kelly Weaver: “Most of our students here are developmentally about half their chronological age, so they’re working far lower than what their grade level should be. So we’re trying to close that gap for them.”

That’s the mission of Alexander Leigh Center for Autism. Born from the concerns of two mothers – both caring for a child with autism – it started with a casual conversation about their kids’ struggles in the public school system.

Kelly Weaver: “What would it look like if we were in charge? We would want respect and privacy and dignity for our kids.”

At the end of the night, they had a model for a therapeutic day school. But they grew quickly until they landed here, a 40,000-square-foot complex in far northwest suburban McHenry.

Kelly Weaver: “And then the kids came fast and furious.”

There are 45 enrolled right now, among them – Gillian, Kelly’s daughter, who is now 19 years old. She and fellow student Deena practice independent living skills in the school’s apartment setting.

Kelly Weaver: “How do we design the education to prepare so that we can get to as much functional outside living, that post-secondary, and then live independently, have a job, go to the grocery store and do all those kinds of things?”

Functional independence is the ultimate goal. Deena and Gillian serve as role models for the younger students.

Kelly Weaver: “We want our kids to become social and very relatable.”

But it takes intense therapy. From music to yoga -- each activity is designed to calm, help regulate emotions and make the students more aware of their bodies.

Kelly Weaver: “We give the kids an opportunity to explore different jobs.”

Local businesses partner with the school to provide potential employment opportunities for the older students. Shane sorts menus for a local restaurant. Xavier is assembling ratchet repair kits for a manufacturing company.

Kelly Weaver: “There’s an estimated half million young adults emptying out of the education system at 22, and we’re really not prepared for what that looks like. It doesn’t slow down for us, autism isn’t slowing down.”

For now, it’s the incremental gains that inspire Kelly and her staff – and keep them pushing forward.

Kelly Weaver: “To see that a kiddo wasn’t even given a chance at a previous placement and yet they come here and their behaviors drop and parents are saying, ‘I didn’t know my kiddo could put on their shoes,’ and ‘I didn’t know that they could put on their coat and we can sit as a family and have dinner.’ That’s the piece that’s the most important piece for me.

Staff members work with school districts to help place students in their therapeutic day school, which serves those with moderate autism, many who are non-verbal. Kelly would like the school to be a role model for other counties, and, ultimately, she’d like to expand by developing a day program for adults.

You can learn more about Alexander Leigh Center for Autism at: http://alcacenter.org/