By Brad Reynolds
The CDC estimates that one in 68 children in the U.S. is affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). That’s more than one million children nationally who suffer from varying degrees of verbal and nonverbal communication issues, difficulties in social interaction, and repetitive behaviors. These children aren’t dumb. They aren’t infirmed. They aren’t incapable of independence or vocational success. With understanding and support, these children can flourish, which is why Sense-Ability, Inc. opened Montana’s first school for students with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
“A few years ago, I was getting a lot of referrals for children on the autism spectrum,” says Sharon Altschwager, a licensed clinical therapist in Great Falls. “Nothing else was working, and parents wanted to see if there was something else that could be done for their children.”
After visiting four schools for autism with licensed clinical social worker Rita Rowe-Watson, Altschwager was confident that a similar program could be implemented in Great Falls. A board of directors was established, bylaws were written, and a K-8 curriculum was developed. In 2016, a building (which had previously housed a church) was purchased to be converted into the Sense-Ability School.
“It’s been a process getting what it was to what it is,” says Brett Gilleo, a clinical director, counselor, and behavior analyst on Sense-Ability, Inc.’s board of directors. “There were coding and zoning issues, ADA compliance, and other legal requirements that needed to be met. Because of the complexity of the kids we work with, we remodeled to create different environments to meet the needs of each kid.”
What suits one student on the autism spectrum might not suit another. In fact, the same student may have different needs one minute to the next.
“In public school, there are schedules and testing. Everything is so structured,” explains Sense-Ability counselor and educator Patty Goodmundson.
Students with autism rarely thrive in a rigid learning environment, and due to the volume of students, public schools aren’t equipped to offer them individualized education. By contrast, Sense-Ability allows educators to work one on one with children to help them accomplish academic and behavioral goals at a reasonable pace. If a student is interested in a particular subject (such as science) the teacher will use that interest to reinforce their education in other subjects (for example, having them write about science to encourage success in English).
When behavioral issues impede a student’s ability to learn, the teacher must prioritize the child’s emotional needs over their own educational objectives.
“We help students with their behaviors first and their academics second,” says Goodmundson. “We help them develop basic life skills so that they can go out and adapt to their environments.”
“We have to go with the flow,” adds Gilleo. “We’re focused on figuring out the strengths of these students to help them have long-term success.”
He notes that the success of a single student with autism has a ripple effect in the community. Depending on the individual, success could mean receiving a secondary education, excelling in a particular field, or learning to live independently and maintain employment.
“These kids live in our community. If we don’t help them become what they’re capable of becoming, they’ll either end up at home, in a nursing home, or on welfare,” says Gilleo. “When adults with autism enter the welfare system instead of the workforce, it’s a huge cost to our state as a whole.”
There’s a popular quote (dubiously attributed to Einstein) which states: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
No one is unteachable. No one is unemployable. No one is worthless. Sense-Ability, Inc. was established because children are our future—Not some children. All of them.