Christian Karras lives in Kaysville with his mom, dad and baby brother, waking up at dawn every school day to put on the overall-and-backpack uniform of a preschooler.
While the children in his neighborhood trot off to the school around the corner, little Christian climbs in his mom's car for the 20-minute drive to Woods Cross. There he boards a van for the 30-minute ride to Salt Lake City, where he'll spend the next six hours, before making the reverse commute that afternoon.It's a long day for a 4-year-old. But for Christian, who has autism, there are few other choices. Two preschools specifically for young children with autism exist in Utah, one in Salt Lake, the other in Utah County.
Now, thanks to $375,000 from the Utah Legislature, Christian and other children with autism in northern Utah are getting a preschool closer to home.
For more than a decade, there was the lone Children's Behavioral Therapy Unit, located at 668 S. 1300 East, providing preschool for children with autism. Parents drove their children from as far away as Delta and Logan.
Teri Taylor and Lisa Bean, weary of the twice-a-day drives from their Utah County homes, approached Alpine School District officials about building a school nearer them. Soon, they and other parents were lobbying legislators for money to expand the CBTU to Utah County. But, some lawmakers balked, worried northern Utah families were being ignored.
So the Utah County parents pledged that, if they got the money, they'd advocate for northern Utah parents the following year. At the 1998 Legislature, Taylor, Bean and others kept that promise, successfully lobbying lawmakers for the money.
Next year, Christian Karras will be in kindergarten. His parents, Micol and Brett, are now deciding whether he'll be mainstreamed or go to a self-contained kindergarten in the Davis School District.
Micol Karras said her son's time at CBTU has been amazingly productive. He communicates better and can sit still longer. Though Christian won't benefit from the new Davis County CBTU, Micol Karras is thankful anyway, that people like Bean and Taylor were willing to support families like hers.
"Those families came up (to the Capitol) just to be there to support us, even though they got their school already," Micol Karras said. "They were so supportive. They had done it last year. They were telling us what to do and helping us out. It was amazing."
But Taylor says the thanks are unnecessary. She remembers having to drive her son, Spencer, from their home in Pleasant Grove to Salt Lake every day and back again for preschool.
"Over the past few years, we have all been without and we understand what a blessing this organization is for us," Taylor said.
Mardie Tobler, another Utah County parent whose son, Sam, 5, has autism, said she went to the Legislature on behalf of Davis County families because every child with a disability deserves a chance.
"Without CBTU, we felt lost in a system that was unprepared to deal with autism," Tobler said. "Sam's progress has been nothing short of miraculous . . . it's like watching a flower unfold to see the child in Sam."
Valley Mental Health runs the Children's Behavioral Therapy Units in Salt Lake and Utah counties. But it's as yet unclear who will run the Davis County facility. The Legislature appropriated the money to the Division of Mental Health, which will be meeting with advocates and mental health providers to find a provider for the new preschool, said division spokeswoman Janina Chilton.
CBTU began in the late 1960s for children with behavioral and other disorders. The first autism preschool began in 1979, with five children.
This year the program is serving 96 autistic preschoolers in Salt Lake, Alpine, and in two satellite classrooms in the Jordan and Granite school districts.
Next year, the Salt Lake CBTU will begin a new kindergarten for children with autism, said director Robin Gochnour. The program is being funded by an unnamed benefactor. Each year the program will expand, up to the sixth grade. Valley Mental Health is now raising money for a new building for the school.