Although I’m rushing off (to a wedding and then two more film festivals for Keep the Change), I couldn’t resist sharing some happy news. Finally, the New York City public school system is finding effective ways to integrate, educate and include children with autism in the mainstream classroom.  Check out “For Children with Autism, No More Being Hushed.”

Dorothy Siegel, a long-time special education advocate, has developed a better way to teach students with autism.  Instead of having a paraprofessional whose job is simply to control the disruptive behavior of ASD students, Ms. Siegel has created the ASD Nest Program, to help autistic kids understand how to function in a school environment while still taking care of their individual needs — critical life skills necessary as they navigate a complicated world.

NEST classes typically have two certified teachers for four students with autism and 8 – 20 general education students.  That’s an enormous numerical spread—wonderful if your child with autism is in a class with 12 students and probably awful if the class size balloons to 24. Still progress is progress. . . . For children who are capable of doing grade-level work, this has the potential to be life-changing, an opportunity to learn and make friends with neurotypical kids who are learning to be kinder and more respectful of individual differences. Now more than ever, our world needs more people who are well-educated AND empathic.

Of course the ASD NEST program in its current configuration will only benefit the high end of the autistic spectrum and those with Asperger’s Syndrome – a relatively small percentage of those diagnosed with an ASD. My daughter Samantha would not have been eligible for the NEST program even if it had existed 20 years ago.  Although considered relatively high-functioning, Samantha was never on grade-level and was hampered by learning disabilities as well as autism.  Yet with a great deal of therapy, tutoring and academic support, our daughter managed to graduate from Pace University.  Why shouldn’t others like her enjoy the same educational opportunity?

Hopefully, the ASD NEST Program can expand and innovate to include many more students like my daughter.  According to the Times, about half of the students with autism in the two original NEST classes from 2003 are in college.  That’s a MUCH higher percentage than in the general autism population, where current college enrollment is estimated at only .7% – 1.9%.  Creative initiatives like NEST are clearly worthwhile investments. Just ask my daughter or her proud mom.



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