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Autism charter school opens

Susan Leon spent years trying to find the right school for her autistic son, Reno.

The public schools didn't have the right tools to teach children with autism, she said. And the specialized private schools were too costly.

So Leon, a paralegal from Kendall, convened a group of parents and experts to create the region's first charter school exclusively for autistic children.

The South Florida Autism Charter School in Hialeah opened in August with 81 students from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

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"These kids can learn so much,'' said Leon, now the school's director of development. "You just have to know how to teach them.''

As more children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, school districts nationwide are finding new ways to meet their needs.

Experts now believe one in every 150 children born in the United States have autism or a related disability.

Locally, more than 4,400 children enrolled in the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts have been diagnosed with the disorder, according to school district data.

"This is one of the fastest-growing special-needs populations in the country,'' said Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. "It's time to provide more options for students and parents.''

In addition to the new charter school, the Miami-Dade school district recently launched South Florida's first choice program for autistic students. The program is housed in at Blue Lakes Elementary, a traditional school in Southwest Miami-Dade.

The school-within-a-school model gives students with autism the opportunity to mingle with other typical students, Carvalho said.

Autistic children have a variety of needs, ranging from social coaching, and behavioral modification, to speech, and occupational therapy.

Both the Miami-Dade and Broward districts have had resources for students with autism within many of their traditional schools. But until this school year, neither had an intensive program.

In developing the South Florida Autism Charter School, Leon and her colleagues sought to bring skilled teachers and therapists to a single location.

Leon also wanted to create a space where students and their families felt comfortable. "We don't want to feel like outsiders in our own school,'' she said.

The South Florida Autism Charter School is housed within a public library in the City of Hialeah. The students have access to nearby Slade Park for recess and physical education.

This year, the school admitted students from kindergarten through the eighth grade. It will eventually grow to serve students through high school.

As a charter school, the South Florida Autism Charter School receives funding from the state. It costs parents nothing to send their children there. But the school is run independently from the Miami-Dade School Board and can set its own curriculum.

The school boasts one teacher for every three students.

At the school district's choice program, the Autism Intensive Communication Academy at Blue Lakes, teachers use similar techniques. There are psychologists and therapists on site, and the children can stimulate or calm their senses in a colorful room with exercise equipment, a ball pit and a camping tent.

"Philosophically, we prefer to have our students exposed to a general education population,'' said Ann Marie Sasseville, who oversees the school district's programs for children with autism. "The children are in separate classrooms, but they are in the same cafeteria for breakfast and lunch, and they walk the same hallways.''

Experts are divided over which model is more effective.

Nationwide, only about a dozen public schools are geared exclusively toward autistic children, including two in Palm Beach County.

Some parents prefer the approach for their children. Others seek a more traditional setting.

Regardless, Brenda Smith-Myles of the Autism Society of America says she is happy to see more choices.

"Each new option that becomes available allows parents to consider their child's individual needs,'' she said.

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