How to prepare autistic children for a life without limits

Newark school children on the autism spectrum show how they can have fun and entertain at an overcrowded ceremony to mark Autism Awareness Month.

“Our children are successful, our children are happy, our children are performing and they’re important,” said Carolyn Granato, assistant superintendent of special education for Newark Public Schools.

Granato says this is about giving all kids access to learning, some more mainstreamed than others, to prepare them for careers and independent living. More kids are being diagnosed with the developmental disorder that shows up as trouble communicating and interacting socially. Granato says the rate is one in 42 children in New Jersey.

“I don’t believe we really know the reason it’s increasing. A lot of individuals will say it’s because of our diligence in diagnosing it and assisting early on. We know that the most important time to intervene is during those very early years,” said Granato.

Antonio Brown was diagnosed when he was 5 years old.

“He use to play with lint balls and all that, and I use to wonder, ‘What’s wrong with him, let’s try and get him out of his shell,'” said Anthony Brown, his father.

What happened when Antonio was enrolled in Newark public schools?

“He wasn’t able to hold a pen, a pencil. He wasn’t able to write his name. He wasn’t really verbal. Now that he’s been into the program, he’s exceeded the goals that we were looking for him to exceed at this point,” his mother Gwendolyn Booker said.

The Phoenix Center is a nonprofit school for children on the autism spectrum and those living with other disabilities. They start at the age of 5, and graduate when they’re 21 years old.

“Each and every one of our students is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s niece or nephew, someone’s very important person in their life. And with that in mind, it’s our job to uncover all their gifts, to respect them highly and ensure we are helping the student, as well as the family,” said Executive Director Julie Mower.

The Phoenix Center does that through a lot of tools and props that include: robots; a SMART board; 12-year-old Chaney, a Labrador retriever; and a multisensory room.

“The bubble tube, the different visual inputs, we’re trying to raise her arousal levels to get her to be more interactive. We meet the student where they are, and we try and bring them up or down based on where they are to make it therapeutic for them,” said Nicole Halliwell, program coordinator of the multisensory environment at the Phoenix Center.

The school’s philosophy is if you think those on the autism spectrum and others with disabilities have to live a life without limits, then think again.

“Our individuals with autism, multiple disabilities want a fulfilled life that everybody else wants,” said Mower. “It’s a matter of us helping for everyone to understand that.”