Moraga school helps kids with Asperger's Syndrome

March 24, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The number of children diagnosed with autism has increased substantially since 1980. Many experts attribute the rise to a wider recognition of the condition, which includes Asberger's Syndrome which is also on the rise. There are only five schools in the nation that cater specifically to kids with Asperger's and one of them in Moraga.

Most psychologists would describe people with Asperger's Syndrome as lacking social skills and empathy, and they can only see how their actions affect themselves -- and no one else.

But, that's a gross generalization.

"Some people would think that, 'Oh, you're just plain stupid.' But, that's not the case, nowhere close. Sometimes we may be even smarter than what most people would ever think," said Jarrod Leon.

Most people with Asperger's have high IQs, but a difficult time managing their lives and integrating into society.

Kathryn Stewart is the founder and director of the Orion Academy, a high school in the East Bay city of Moraga. All 80 students there have Asperger's.

"These kids are not going away. There's a lot of them and they're going to grow up. And, when they do, they could be incredible, incredible assets to our community, but not if we can't help them get out there. Otherwise, they're going to be living in their parent's basement," she said.

Orion Academy teaches them how to live outside their comfort zone. Part of that requires learning how to think before they speak.

"You know, like if someone said to you, 'Does this look nice on me?' And, it's the perfect joke... 'Does this look nice on me?' They'd say, 'No you're too fat.' And it would be like gasp, and so you say, 'You don't say that to people. That's not polite.' They'd say, 'But, it's the truth," Stewart explained.

It is sort of like the character played by Jim Carrey in the movie "Liar Liar." Reading social cues is something they are constantly practicing.

"For instance, if someone is giving me the look, the thing people usually interpret as get away, stop doing that, you're not going on the right track, I might not get that and continue what I am doing only to blunder into a potential very embarrassing situation," said student Gus Hardy.

Dogs are also used at Orion to help teach non verbal-communication, body language -- something that doesn't come naturally to students with Asperger's.

"And everything that goes along with it, facial expression. We don't have tails but we have a lot of body expression. Dogs totally read each other on all those things," Stewart said.

In drama class, they practice their emotions by taking on roles.

No one knows what causes Asperger's. Researchers only know their brains are wired differently.

"See all the little indentations, well this is where information gets traveling back and forth, back and forth, and it seems in this gray matter, there's something that's not going right," Stewart explained.

Basically, these connections are not being made in the brain or they're breaking up. It's like talking on your cell phone and missing part of the conversation. The place where these missing connections most often occur is the frontal lobe which controls skills such as organization, planning and judgment.

Some have sensory integration issues. Most people have the ability to screen out noises all around us, but one particular student at Orion can't. So, rocking allows him to block some of the noises so he can concentrate on what's in front of him.

The school manages the environment. The rooms are carpeted to avoid chairs scraping on the floor. There are no bells, nothing that could distract them.

"I was in between being in normal education and doing normal work or even above average, or I was in special Ed with kids that had say, dyslexia, or had problems reading or something," said student Sarah Van Ess.

Some may feel these kids would be better off being in the classroom with other types of students so they could learn how to model normal behavior.

"My response to that is if they were gonna, they woulda, okay? By the time they are in high school, and trust me, they don't read visual cues, so they're not going to model. They don't model," Stewart said.

Together, she argues, they are more accepting of each other.

Today, there are only about five of these schools in the nation, with demand increasing every year.


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