Wendy Hoop leads a fairly typical life as a mother. She gets her kids ready for school every morning. After school, she drives a car pool for her kids and their friends. This is a stressful life, but her stress is often magnified by one of her children. Her 9-year-old, Noah, has autism.
"We really can't even go out as a family to dinner together because Noah can't handle it," she said. "There are so many unique pressures to having a child with autism. That's why I'm so excited about the new school."
The new school she is excited about is a new facility for the one Noah is going to. Clear Horizons Academy in Orem is building a new facility for kids with autism, and it will be opening in late June.
"With all the running around we do, it will be great for Noah to have a real stable environment for all of his school years," she said.
Hoop's experiences are far from unusual in Utah, where one in 47 children are born with autism, compared to a national average of one in 88.
Hoop wants people to remember that her son isn't autistic, he just has autism.
"We really don't like it when people call him autistic," she said. "No family with autism does. That's not all they are. That's not all they should be defined by. He has autism, but he is not autistic."
"Autism really shouldn't define anyone because it's so undefinable," Christopher Lindsay of Clear Horizons said. "Autism is a term used for a wide spectrum of issues from communication and social skills to mobility." The administrators of the new Clear Horizons Academy say the school will tackle all of those issues.
Right now, Clear Horizons rents space wherever it can find it. But starting in June, it will have 10 acres of land next to the Cherry Hill Farm in west Orem. The land was donated by Brent and Kathryn Wood. Their involvement began when doctors diagnosed their granddaughter with autism.
"They looked around the area and couldn't find a place for her," Lindsay said. "But like anyone affected by autism, they wanted to make a difference in these children's lives." And now new quarters for Clear Horizons Academy are nearing completion.
The new school will take mostly children from the Provo, Orem and Alpine areas but will also take in students from other parts of the state. The new facility will start with five classrooms, and school officials hope to continue adding on to the building in the next two or three years as students are accepted.
The classrooms will include many amenities to help those with autism. Each room will have swinging hangers for students who constantly move their bodies. Architects also designed the rooms to let in indirect sunlight, as those with autism often deal with sensory problems. There will also be observation rooms and quiet rooms where the kids can cool down at times.
Clear Horizons also will have a playground, a cafeteria and administrative offices.
"It will be nice to have places specifically designed for autism," Hoop said. "Most families don't realize the stress that comes with having a child with autism," she added. "A school like this takes some of those pressures away."
When Noah started with Clear Horizons, he couldn't chew and swallow solid food. Over the course of his first year, the school worked with him on this issue.
"It started with just looking at food, which he could hardly do without getting sick. They spent weeks with him on touching food to his lips. They worked with him on tasting it," Hoop said. "It was a long, tedious process. But by the end of his first year, he was eating solid food. It was a huge burden lifted."
Those who run Clear Horizons say with the rate of autism increasing, Utah may need more schools that specialize in helping such students.
"If autism doesn't directly affect your family now, " Carol Walker of Clear Horizons said, it may soon.
"The school districts do all they can with what they have," Lindsay said. "But kids with autism need special attention and special resources to make their learning experience truly effective."
For more information about Clear Horizons, go to www.clearhorizonsacademy.org.
Jeff Merrill is a student at BYU and reporter for BYUtv. Contact him on his twitter @THEjeffmerrill.
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