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One Mom's Fight for Autism Education

Mom and autistic son on piano
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Chris Crisman

He was almost 4 when the homeschooling started, and the progress was astounding: AJ went from speaking single words to completing full sentences in just six weeks. One of his first objectives was to simply sit still in a chair, Joanne recalls. "The instructors would say, 'Come sit,' and pat the chair. If he did, they'd reinforce him with candy and by saying, 'Good job, you sat!' He caught on quickly." Joanne was ecstatic and couldn't wait to share the good news with more families. Over the next five years, she worked tirelessly to create similar home programs.

Soon she and the other parents wondered why they had to pay out of pocket for these home lessons when they were already paying taxes (school districts are mandated to provide appropriate education services for students with disabilities). Could ABA techniques be taught in public schools? Joanne spent months convincing school board officials of that growing need. In 1997 she created the AJ Foundation for Children with Autism (AJFCA), which helped develop the area's first public-school ABA program for elementary-age students with autism. The demand was huge, but as kids flooded the school, budget constraints prevented the district from hiring enough staff to deliver one-on-one attention.

Worried that the kids' learning might be compromised, Joanne opened her own private school with an ABA-trained educator. Her husband Allan's experience as a civil engineer and partnership in a construction company came in handy; he renovated a mobile unit, which their church agreed to "host" rent-free in its parking lot.

Fortunately, the state approved a license for the school, and The Comprehensive Learning Center (CLC) opened in September 2000 with two instructors and three students. It was funded by students' tuition and money raised by the AJFCA. Over the next few years, the program expanded as more students and faculty came on board. Eventually it relocated to a permanent building.