ABC Spells a Better Chance for Students with Autism

Tucked in an unlikely corner of a Richmond business park, is a school that caters to the unique needs of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A Better Chance School is a nonpublic school that operates under the umbrella of the California Autism Foundation, an organization that provides educational and developmental services, job opportunities and housing for individuals with autism. The hallways at ABC are lined with cheerful student portraits and art, and a constant flow of praise for the students is heard. Visitors wouldn’t know that these same teens and young adults were considered difficult students when they were in mainstream schools.

The school began 15 years ago, when directors at CAF realized that students needed help transitioning from mainstream school environments into the residential and employment programs the foundation offered. The idea was to create a school with a “functional skills curriculum” that would integrate school academic standards with daily life skills. So, with three students in an office inside CAF’s warehouse facility, ABC began, and since has grown into a multi-classroom site complete with a working kitchen and laundry room and two and a half dozen students. “Community-based learning and real world experiences are an integral part of education at ABC School. When students are learning to count and do math, they are doing it while doing laundry,” said Leslie Werosh, Senior Director of Special Education & Development. “To learn about money, nutrition, and social exchanges, our students take trips to the grocery store.”

ABC contracts with surrounding school districts that are unable to adequately meet the needs of students with autism. “Often times, the students that are referred to us are exhibiting behavioral challenges,” said Werosh. She added proudly that the school usually sees significant and immediate progress in student behavior after only a short time at ABC.

The school works with the district to establish an Individual Education Plan for each student. Teachers provide constant positive reinforcement and appropriate sensory stimulation to help students shape their behavior. Students are never punished for inappropriate behavior, but rather rewarded with praise, tokens or privileges when they follow directions and expectations. Visitors to the school hear a chorus of praise for tasks ranging from putting materials away, sharing and shaking hands.

In addition to the positive interactional atmosphere, the environment is tailored to its students, who tend to have particularly sensitive sensory systems. Fluorescent lights were replaced with softer, incandescent bulbs. Students have access to a Sensory Room, which includes a swing, climbing wall, weight vests and a squeeze machine—all equipment that can help students calm themselves when they become agitated.

The students make daily trips into the community to learn money and communication skills. “The trips help the students gain confidence in the community, and it also increases public awareness of autism,” said Werosh. Higher-functioning students attend courses at nearby Contra Costa College, and others participate in the Workability Program—where students work with local employers such as Marriott and the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

“Our goal is always to support our students to help them reach their maximum potential,” said Werosh. “Whether a student graduates or transitions back to a district classroom, it is viewed a success.”

The classrooms are full of happy students and the hallways are hung with portraits of them. ABC must be doing something right.


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