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One Mom's Fight for Autism Education

Although CLC is a magnet for families with ADS kids, some of whom move to be closer to the school, Joanne emphasizes that ABA is not a cure for autism but a way of learning to deal with the condition. In addition to working longer school days and over an extended school year, the staff at CLC spend time teaching kids life skills, like how to sit quietly in church or at a movie, tolerate dental and medical appointments, and order and eat politely in restaurants—tasks that improve the entire family's quality of life.

Joanne acknowledges the program's hefty cost. CLC's yearly tuition, mostly covered by local school districts, is $82,250. She points out, however, that the price tag doesn't tell the full story. CLC aims to make these kids as independent as possible—and that pays off for everybody in the long run. The cost of a lifetime of care for one person with autism is $3.2 million, mostly in lost productivity and adult care, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. So a child who functions well enough to transition into regular school or a job saves taxpayers around $3 million. And for families whose kids can finally revel in self-expression, friendship and knowledge, the value is even greater.

Twenty-four students are now enrolled at CLC, which accepts kids from ages 3 to 21. In 2009 the school expanded to a second 6,000-square-foot building to accommodate its growing numbers. The next step is an adult life skills program, which is in its early development phase. But with so much expansion, tuition alone can't cover operating costs, so Joanne organizes major events like casino nights and golf outings. She raises as much as $230,000 annually. AJ helps her out. "I work as a bartender at the casino night," he says. In addition, Joanne arranges conferences and CLC visitor days to educate people about autism and ABA.

Joanne admits to a sense of wonder at how far AJ has come. But her gratitude goes beyond her son's success: "I'm proud to work with people who will stop at nothing to give their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends with autism a better life."

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

Read more about autism, including Joanne's story in her own words, at familycircle.com/autism.