Uprooting a family and business is no small task, but when it comes to education for a child, sometimes that is exactly what families must consider. If that child is on the autism spectrum, that decision is even more critical.
Enter the McMahon family of Folsom, Calif., who faced such a decision when their son, Sam, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at age 3.
“We put him in our local school district and they were wonderful,” said Linda McMahon, Sam’s mother. “He had occupational therapy and help with his speech, backed by a really good support system and good teachers.”
However, by third grade Sam was struggling. Linda and Jim, Sam’s father, after discussing various individualized education plans with school officials, considered holding Sam back due to his low reading and math scores. But the school wouldn’t hear of it, believing it was a reflection on their instructional methods, so the McMahons pressed on, allowing Sam to enter the fourth grade.
“It started off OK; he was provided an aide but was falling further and further behind,” McMahon said. “When that happened, his anxiety stepped up. Friends started to mean a lot to him, but there weren’t any kids there for him.”
“He wanted to wear his heavy coat at recess because he wanted to disappear, then kids wouldn’t play with him because he was different,” she said. “To see him wandering around alone — I watched from afar one day and it broke my heart. He prayed for rainy days because he hated recess.”
Linda talked to other parents with children on the spectrum about their experiences and was not encouraged as Sam approached middle school.
“Teachers at the middle school are not equipped to handle kids like Sam who are in the middle; there is no in-between support. I can’t blame the teachers, they have 40 kids in a rotating classroom system. They just didn’t have another alternative, except to put him in a resource room and forget him. That’s what these other parents said. And he would have been bullied – that kid sitting by himself,” McMahon explained.
She knew she had to take steps to ensure her son would not be lost in a system not designed for his particular needs. A Google search led her to Newton Learning Center of Northern Nevada, a tuition-based, private school licensed by the Nevada Department of Education. The family went to Reno to tour the Newton campus and were impressed.
“I walked out of there and said to Jim: ‘This is it,’ ” McMahon said. The school’s focus on slowing things down was key in their decision.
Collaborating with parents, Newton staff builds an individualized, safe and supportive education program which allows students with autism spectrum disorders to achieve their greatest potential.
Goals are accomplished through solid education fundamentals and social/emotional awareness, providing students with the tools necessary to grow both socially and academically. Newton creates a safe and trusting atmosphere for students that promotes learning, self-esteem, relationship building and personal growth.
With the decision made about enrolling Sam at Newton, the family looked at relocating to Reno. With an older son starting at the University of Nevada, Reno, she knew her family could make the transition to Nevada and that Jim, who owns a construction company, could commute back and forth while settling in to Reno’s busy economy.
Other cities and schools they considered involved longer commutes, higher tuition and more expensive cost-of-living areas, so were dismissed accordingly, McMahon said.
“It was a good move for us. We’ve been here a year now and Sam’s self-esteem is up. He wakes up and tells me how much he loves school and his friends. He wants to graduate from Newton. He’s so happy,” she said, adding that she has told other families she knows in California about Newton Learning Center and its benefits.
“At Newton Learning Center, they gear classes to what he knows, and then build on it so he can focus and learn,” she said. “Their goal at NLC is to mainstream on his terms, not on an artificial time line.”
She said now that Sam has settled into Newton Learning Center, the McMahons will complete the move to Reno.
“We are still in our little apartment, but now that we made the decision to stay, we’re ready to make the next step and make Reno our home.”
The school lowered its tuition for the 2018-19 school year in order to help Northern Nevada families find educational alternatives for students struggling in traditional schools. To learn more about Newton Learning Center’s individualized education options for kids on the autism spectrum or with similar learning differences, visit secondstart.org.