PLEASANT GROVE — Public school wasn't working and a six-month stretch of home schooling was exhausting, but Jessica Schmutz was determined to find a way to educate her autistic son.
"I was looking into starting my own school," Schmutz said Wednesday, as she and her family toured the nearly finished Spectrum Academy in Pleasant Grove.
Opening its doors this fall, the accredited charter is responding to a need that the Schmutzes and other Utah County parents brought to their attention years ago — a need for free-tuition, consistent specialized education for children on the autism spectrum.
The local charter already operates a special autism education school in North Salt Lake and has since 2006, but its elementary and secondary schools are filled to capacity and have hundreds of hopeful families on a waiting list.
Even if 9-year-old Dallin Schmutz got in on the lottery selection system, it would have been over an hour drive each direction for the Springville-based family, which is less than convenient for an already stressful situation.
"I had an idea of how to help my son learn, but I was expected to wear the hats of teacher, counselor, therapist and mother and so many more," Schmutz said. "I was so overwhelmed. I have my mommy instincts, but I knew I didn't have the skill set to help him progress."
Her son, who is moderate-functioning and softly sang his way through the first part of the school tour on Wednesday, learns best with music, a calm environment and many breaks throughout the day.
And in its specialized design, Spectrum has thought of those aspects, and more, to accommodate the unique needs of many students on the autism spectrum.
From the soothing colors of the walls, to the natural light in every room and plenty of small break rooms adjacent to the classrooms, Spectrum Academy Director of Development Brad Nelson said students are set for various portions of their training.
"It will look like a typical classroom until you look more closely and see a kid sitting on a bouncy ball chair, or another child wearing earphones to help him focus on the teacher talking, or see another one with a small screen on his desk. There will be some kids fidgeting with toys under their desks, which are allowed, for their specialized sensory needs," he said.
"It takes them out of a resource class at a typical school and puts them in a more conducive and comfortable environment that is right for them," Nelson said, adding that with autism being largely a social disorder, many students who suffer the condition can't function normally in a typical classroom.
"Meltdowns," which are all too common to parents of children with autism, he said, are "procedural at Spectrum, instead of odd." The school has mastered the art of removing distractions that tend to set children off.
Each student receives 45 minutes to an hour of social scenario training each day, and class sizes will be small, with 12 to 15 kids for every teacher and para-professional pair.
The building boasts offices and at least 32 classrooms in more than 40,000 square feet for kindergarten through eighth grade. Spectrum will build a 20,000-square-foot expansion next year, and add one grade per year until it operates a K-12 facility that will eventually house 650 students.
"We are a school. We are not a treatment center," Nelson said. "We have made these specifications in order to facilitate learning and education and accommodate student needs."
Dallin will start third grade there this fall, and Schmutz said the school is just a 20-minute drive from home. And he won't be alone, as Spectrum's newest location has already almost filled the 430 available spots for students to start on Aug. 19.
A waiting list will also be set up for families who don't make the first-come, first-served enrollment opportunity. For more information, visit www.spectrumcharter.org.
Utah has the second-highest prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the country, with one in 54 kids diagnosed, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the rate is holding at about 2 percent of the state's population over the years, autism is getting more attention from lawmakers and officials as available resources continue to be limited.
"Kids with autism spectrum disorder are usually looked on as so much different and hard to be around," said Spectrum Principal Liz Banner. "This is a place they can come and be themselves."
She said her son, Jackson, has autism and tried attending a typical junior high school after years at Spectrum, but "it wasn't the same."
The aim for students at Spectrum Academy is independent self-regulation so that they can function successfully across a variety of settings, according to Spectrum's website.
"The need is endless," Schmutz said, adding that she's come across so many other families who struggle through the learning process with their autistic children. The family had to stop applied behavior analysis therapy because of financial constraints, and aside from Spectrum, she said, there aren't many options for continuous education in a specialized setting.
A general belief about autism spectrum disorders, Schmutz said, is that affected children lose their ability to continue to learn new things after about age 8. She said she believes Dallin can do better.
"To know him is to know how intelligent he is," Schmutz said. "He will continue to learn and grow if he is provided the opportunity to do so."
She trusts Spectrum because she said its administrators are "passionate" about what they do, with a goal to help individuals and families surpass the limitations of the disorder.
"We've got things to look forward to," Schmutz said, adding that the demands on parents of children with special needs are lifelong and she wants to see her son succeed at life.
Spectrum, which gets the same money that is doled to school districts throughout the state for the education and training of children with special needs, would like to expand to more locations and enroll even more students who have autism, but will do so "responsibly," said Jamie Christenson, director of schools for the local charter.
She said she knows of many families who would commute to the two Spectrum schools, "but we're just full."
Spectrum, Christenson said, has been approached to open schools in other states as well, but those plans are on hold until its program is "cemented" locally, she said.
"There are only two or three schools like Spectrum Academy in the nation, so for Utah to have two options in the state is an amazing opportunity," Nelson said. "We have a substantial need for this and it's been proven that students on the autism spectrum who have access to specialized education and interventions lead more productive and fulfilling lives."
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