Necessity inspires Atlanta mom to start a
unique high school for children with autism.
This is not supposed to be my life. The me I planned to be is slipping on a pair of designer shoes while my husband serves our children breakfast in the kitchen of our Cambridge townhouse. On the way to my first appointment of the day with a client at the Boston Women’s Health Collective, I drop my kids off at school while mentally outlining my latest article on feminist therapy.
Instead, something is burning. While I’ve been pondering the life I imagined when I was a social work grad student at Bryn Mawr, a clot of scrambled egg has stuck to the frying pan and scorched in my kitchen in Atlanta. As I furiously scrape the pan, the microwave beeps indicating the bacon is done. Breakfast finally assembled, I slide the whole thing across the counter toward my only child, 6-year-old son Gabriel, whose head is bowed over the game he’s playing on my iPhone.
I have about three minutes to whip up a fruit smoothie for myself. In my rush, I turn the stick blender on before it’s fully immersed in the yogurt. Now it’s a facial.
“It’s already 7:52!” Gabriel announces.
Despite his anti-anxiety medication, Gabriel still tends to fixate on the time. He knows his morning routine down to the minute and becomes agitated if he believes he is falling behind. It’s hard for me to help him overcome this obsession, because I empathize. I also love schedules and order, though I don’t cry or have a panic attack if we leave the house at 8:41 instead of 8:40. Then again, the world isn’t a constant unpredictable assault on my nervous system, as it is for Gabriel. Autism dictates the morning routine must proceed as scheduled if my son is to leave for school in a calm frame of mind conducive to learning.
As I plop down beside Gabriel, I shove my hair out of my eyes and discover yogurt in my eyebrows. I love my son and everything about him. I just always thought I’d get a tiny piece of my old self back when he went to school full-time. I didn’t anticipate the hours of research and advocacy required to untangle his complex set of needs, nor the fatigue that comes with it. I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but this was not supposed to be my life.
After breakfast, I drop Gabriel off at Hirsch Academy in Decatur. It is his fifth school in five years. I can barely tell the previous schools apart, since the reasons each asked us to leave were virtually identical: “Not the right fit. Difficult to support. So smart but cries a lot. Requires too much one-on-one. Clingy.”
My efforts to enlighten the various staffs on my son’s needs and quirks via a color-coded binder containing meticulous notes were received without enthusiasm. When we came to Hirsch, I wasn’t sure my heart could survive one more round of the “We don’t think our school is a good fit for Gabriel” conversation.
I realized Hirsch was different one day early on when I was in the carpool line waiting to pick Gabriel up after school. I was 30 minutes early because Gabriel has a full-on nuclear meltdown if I’m late, so I’m always the first in line. I was killing time playing Angry Birds when I heard a tentative tap on my window. It was Gabriel’s new teacher. My gut lurched: Carpool conferences are never a good sign.
I took a breath, braced for impact and opened the window halfway.
“Everything’s fine,” she said immediately. “I just wanted to say thank you for your note. Those are great suggestions, and you obviously understand him so well.”
She was referring to a multi-page missive I’d sent her after one of Gabriel’s meltdowns, essentially a digest version of the color-coded notebook.
“Anything I can do to help,” I chirped.
Inside, I rolled my eyes. Here we go. Fifty bucks says the next sentence out of her mouth is about why she can’t possibly implement my suggestions or how Gabriel needs to be prevented from disturbing the class.
“I always appreciate your input,” she continued.
I gaped at her through the half-closed window, a shocked goldfish staring out of the bowl.
“This is a team situation,” she said. “You and I support each other because that’s what’s best for Gabriel.”
I struggled for words, managing a quiet, “thank you.”
Tears pressed behind my eyes, and I blinked them away, mindful of Gabriel’s impending arrival. He doesn’t understand happy crying yet.
Fast-forward six years. Gabriel has flourished at Hirsch, startling his teachers with the speed of his mental math, uncovering a talent for urban transportation planning and proudly flaunting his status as the cool kid who the youngest students want to high-five on their way out the door. Earlier this year, when his teacher created a class store and began arbitrarily taxing items to make a point, he was the first to recognize the taxation without representation reference and led the class in their very own revolution. Gabriel is as comfortable in his own skin as any preadolescent can be, quick to speak out against injustice and always ready to help a friend. My husband and I couldn’t be prouder of the person he’s becoming, and Hirsch has celebrated every milestone along the way with us. Like family.
I’m early for carpool, as usual. So early, in fact, I go inside on a whim. With 25 minutes left before his majesty arrives, I glance around the lobby, not entirely sure what I’m looking for.
No, that’s a lie. I’m hoping for an unoccupied teacher to stop and chat, so I can pour out my worries.
I perch on the edge of the silver leather couch and pick at a crack in the seam. This piece of furniture barely fits in the tiny entryway and would be more at home in an Austin Powers movie. But the students love it. And one of my favorite things about Hirsch is that the kids run the show whenever possible.
Shelley Carnes, Hirsch’s principal, walks by.
“How are the school visits going?” she asks. Normally, her brilliant smile and the prospect of five uninterrupted minutes of her solicitous attention are enough to raise my spirits.
But not today.
I clamp my teeth together and pull back my lips in a reasonable imitation of a smile.
Gabriel ages out of Hirsch’s K-8 program in just 18 months. He already seems too big for the space. The school is located in a renovated house, just barely large enough to accommodate its 23 students. Gabriel’s gangly 12-year-old arms and legs have been bumping into walls and knocking over chairs for months now. He is literally outgrowing the school.
I, on the other hand, am not. I’m not ready to leave this nurturing environment.
Before I know it, I find myself behind her closed office door, curled into an armchair with a box of tissues in my lap.
I explain our dilemma slowly, gathering speed as my thoughts come together. We can’t drive the expressways in the morning — traffic sets Gabriel off, so anything north of the city is out. And the schools I’ve looked at in town just aren’t … right.
“What I want doesn’t exist,” I tell her. “I want Hirsch to buy the house next door and start a high school. That’s what he needs. This place, but for older kids.”
Nothing eats at my gut more than knowing exactly what my son needs and not being able to get it for him. When I look up, wiping fresh tears, Shelley is staring at me speculatively, one finger tapping thoughtfully against her desk.
“What?” I ask, swiping my nose with a tissue.
“What if it’s not impossible?” she asks. “What if there could be a Hirsch for older kids?”
I freeze halfway out of my seat as I toss a tissue in the trashcan.
“Are you serious? Do you really think the board would approve starting a high school program?” I’m trying to stay calm, but the hope is already building.
“I think the parents would have to suggest it,” she says carefully. “Maybe if we sent the board some statements of need.”
“I could do that.” I stand, already putting together the list of parents in my head. “Do you really think it would work?”
“I think this could be the start of something very exciting!” Her eyes are sparkling.
I’m on it. Like right now. I’ve already started my statement in my head, and I grin back at her as I head back to my car.
In my rush to the carpool line, I fail to notice Shelley didn’t say she thought Hirsch would start a high school.
Six weeks later, standing outside a meeting of 30 or so like-minded parents, therapists and teachers, I grab my husband’s sleeve, crumpling my sweat-stained notes against his arm.
“Ted, did I just do what I think I did?”
“That depends,” Ted answers, gently prying himself loose. “Do you think you just told a room full of people you’re going to start a high school?”
“You in?” I ask. “Because I don’t think I can do this without you.”
“What the hell.” He squeezes my hand as we walk to the car. “We’ve got nothing to lose but our sanity. And it’s not like we had a lot of that to start with.”
“We should stop by the store on the way home,” I tell him. “We’re going to need a lot more wine.”
Around the same time I take a flying leap off a cliff of insanity, Shelley makes a jump of her own. Like any good educator, she’s always thinking about how to improve her students’ experience and researching new learning techniques. While I’m quietly freaking out about what I’ve taken on, she’s learning about a new tool to help nonspeaking autistic students communicate through spelling.
Called spelling to communicate or Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), the technique helps students express themselves by pointing to letters on an alphabet board to spell out their thoughts. A handful of nonspeaking students are being introduced to the method.
Motor planning can be difficult for autistic people. Their bodies don’t always do what they want them to do when they want them to. Given this challenge, it can take months of practice to develop the skill of pointing at a specific letter on the alphabet board. So teachers and parents proceed with care while our tiny school community watches and waits.
The words begin to come in tiny drips, then a steady trickle and eventually a torrent that knocks us all for a joyful loop.
Once the non-speaking students began to achieve fluency, it became apparent they hear and process everything around them. Their mouths might not work the way they want them to, but their brains are just fine — and in many cases, better than fine. It’s a watershed moment for parents who always suspected their children understood more than they could express. I celebrate with my friends who are at last able to know their children’s thoughts and feelings.
I never consider introducing the boards to Gabriel. He didn’t speak until he was 4, but he hasn’t stopped talking since. My interest in this new technique is around incorporating it into our new high school, so I schedule a meeting with Shelley to learn more. She greets me with her mega-watt smile, as always, and guides me to the same office in which I fell apart all those months ago. She hands me a couple of books, gives me a brief overview of the theory behind the method and stands up.
“Wait, are we done?” I ask, confused. “I know the books will explain the basics, but you’re the expert on bringing this into a classroom. Shouldn’t we talk about that?”
“We can,” she nods, pausing with her hand on the doorknob. “But I don’t think anything I say will explain it better than the kids can. So I want to take you upstairs.”
I follow her to the stairs, juggling my purse, the stack of books and my iPad, wishing Shelley would just tell me what to do already without making a production out of it. When she opens the door at the top of the staircase, I stop short.
The small hallway outside the classrooms is wallpapered in words. Transcriptions of class discussions via the alphabet boards cover every inch not claimed by art projects. A conversation posted just below eye level attracts my attention because the first student quoted is a girl I have known for years, who has struggled to express herself for as long as I’ve known her.
I stoop to read the lesson and promptly drop everything I am holding. Assigned to write her own creation myths after learning about other cultures’ variations, her myth begins: I BELIEVE PEOPLE ARE THE REINS ON THE CHARIOT OF THE CREATOR.
“She said this?” I ask, glancing up at Shelley from where I squat on the floor.
“She spelled it,” Shelley grins, enjoying my astonishment. “When the words are all capitalized like that, it means she used the alphabet boards.”
I continue reading, settling cross-legged on the floor. The next lesson is about mapping the human genome, and I recall that just a few months earlier the project on this same wall space was about fairy tales.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Shelley. “I wish we’d known sooner how much was inside them.”
“Most of these kids age out next year or the year after,” I observe, twisting around so I can see her face. “Where will they go from here? Who else is doing this?”
“No one,” she says simply.
“My God, I’d love to see what Gabriel would contribute to these conversations.”
“He wants to be involved,” she replies. “I know because I see him reading out here all the time, and he asks his teachers questions about some of these lessons.”
We stare silently at one another for a moment, the unspoken message clear.
“They should all be learning together, shouldn’t they?”
“That’s how we’re going to try to do it here next year,” she nods.
These students, speaking and nonspeaking, will likely have to fight to be heard and understood for most of their adult lives. They’ll be stronger if they fight together, regardless of how they communicate. They need each other. And, I realize, they need a school where they can strengthen their individual and group voices as they learn.
I think I might know a place.
Photo: Alison works at her desk in the foyer room of Connections School Atlanta.
A few more months into my new venture, and I am no longer working alone. That first brainstorming session led to a group of parents willing to call ourselves a board of directors. We’re all official-like, with a secretary, treasurer, vice president and guess who as president.
Despite the title, my leadership is largely nominal. Our board members’ impressive expertise includes law, accounting and finance, real estate, education, collective organizing, grant-writing and, of course, autism. Much of the time, the most productive thing I do is listen to these experts and take on the tasks and responsibilities no one else has the time or desire to do.
I’m so grateful and humbled to have these people at my side. They have sacrificed untold amounts of money, time and energy. It’s inspiring — and terrifying. Each new piece they give of themselves is that much more I have to lose if this fails.
Fund raising, accreditation, staffing. These are the concerns that keep me awake at night.
One evening I am mentally reviewing the next day’s epic to-do list while preparing for bed. My electric toothbrush beeps, prompting me to move it to the other side of my mouth. Except I can’t move it, because I’ve unconsciously clenched my jaw so tightly the bristles are wedged firmly between my teeth.
You can’t keep this up, I think as I study my reflection in the mirror. You’ll never sleep again if you try to solve every problem in the 15 minutes before bed.”
“Looking for Wonderland?” Ted inquires. I jump when his reflection suddenly pops up beside mine.
“Just thinking,” I say.
“Well stop. It’s bedtime and you’re thinking so loud you’re keeping me awake.” He pads out to the bedroom, turning off lights as he goes.
I give myself one last look and see my brow start to furrow. The school is not the only source of stress in the house. Gabriel has called Hirsch home for almost seven years and he is growing increasingly more nervous about leaving. Ted is struggling with both the politics of his job as an ER doctor at Grady Hospital, and a little-understood mitochondrial disorder that drains his energy. We each carry our own anxiety as we stare into our individual unknowns and simultaneously feel one another’s apprehension as it bleeds into our own.
Stop, I tell myself. This has to stop. You don’t have to have all the answers right this minute. My brow starts to smooth out, my shoulders loosen and my jaw slowly relaxes. The school might not be the perfect realization of my dream the first year, but it will exist in some form and it will be, at minimum, OK, I assure myself. Extraordinary and awesome happen incrementally over time. We’ll get there.
Everything is going to be OK.
So it begins
Connections School of Atlanta officially opened for business on Aug. 9, 2016, in space provided by Inman Park United Methodist Church, with six students, three boys and three girls, ranging in age from 14 to 16 years old. The teachers and I look at each other in stunned exhaustion at the end of our first day, the adrenaline crash so abrupt it’s almost audible. No one threw up. No one quit. The building is still standing. We survived day one.
One day turns into two, and before I know it, we’re checking off a growing list of firsts. The students take their first field trip to Krog Street Market, and their parents attend our first back-to-school night. We hold our first open tour and information session for next year’s applicants, and our first student birthday celebration. By the time I look up, Halloween costumes fill the shelves at Target and campaign ads jam the airwaves.
Our “Supreme Six,” as I’ve nicknamed our inaugural students, are already on their second project of the year. As part of studying the election process, they each create their own political parties, complete with platforms, symbols, slogans and campaign strategies. The class watches CNN Student News every afternoon. Gabriel explains the Electoral College to me at dinner.
On Election Day, I make a point of going upstairs to visit the classroom. It would be just like our teachers to plan a fun celebration of the right to vote as a surprise for their students. But when I arrive, the class is laser focused on paper booklets on the table in front of them. With the exception of the alphabet boards and the teachers leaning in to help, it looks enough like a standardized testing session to make me cringe. We’ve committed to avoiding those as much as possible, as they rarely reflect our students’ capabilities.
“Hey Mom!” Gabriel glances up, seeing me in the doorway. “Guess what? We’re voting!”
Looking more closely, I recognize the booklets as absentee ballots. Some students read the ballots to themselves, while others listen carefully as a teacher reads the text aloud. Another student spells out his choice on an alphabet board. We all struggle together to understand the homestead exemption questions. In the end, every student earns a homemade “Georgia Voter” sticker.
Our teachers strive every day to help our students find and use their voices. Today the students learned they have the right to have a say on a national level — no matter what tools they use to say it.
No, this was not supposed to be my life. But sometimes, on the way to the life you planned, you get lost and find a better one. I am miles away from my original destination, and yet I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
ABOUT THE STORY
I met Alison Auerbach several years ago when she took a writing class I taught at Emory Continuing Education. She proved to be a talented writer from the start who brought a lot of humor to the serious topic of her son’s autism. Over the years I’ve gotten to witness her devotion as a mother, as well as her Type A personality, in action, so I wasn’t surprised to hear she was starting a high school for autistic children. To learn more about Connections School of Atlanta, go to www.connectionsschoolofatlanta.org.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Alison Auerbach isone of the founders of Connections School of Atlanta Inc., a high school for autistic adolescents that celebrates their differences. She has more than 20 years’ experience advocating for social justice as an editor, a domestic violence prevention counselor and a support group facilitator. Her writing can be found in “Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs.”