When an Obsession Pays Off

Sometimes a woman has to take matters into her own hands.

Such a woman is Sheila Ealey, founder of the Creative Learning Center, a school for autistic children.

When her own son, Temple, now 8, was diagnosed with severe autism, she was told he would eventually need to be institutionalized. At the time of the diagnosis, he exhibited classic symptoms of autism – arm flapping, rocking and inability to focus on objects, a skill evidenced normally by finger pointing in infancy. Several specialists told her there was no hope.

Ealey ignored them. Instead of stockpiling money for Temple’s long-term care, she invested all her assets in proving the experts wrong. She traveled the country looking at programs; she read textbooks and she communicated with any knowledgeable person who would answer her question. She spent pension funds, mortgaged her house and borrowed more money. Eventually, she determined that Temple and others like him needed a special school, one designed just for them.

Now, six years later, her obsession is paying off with CLC, a home school for autistic children she opened in September with the help of co-founder, Lisa Winter, a parent with a similar history. The school is based on a child-centered instructional approach developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a specialist who trains teachers and care givers in Washington D.C. After just eight months, Ealey and Winter say assessments show that their sons and two other boys advanced from pre-kindergarten levels to between first and third grade. 

“The program works,” Winter says. “As parents, we’re amazed. Our thoughts about the children’s capabilities are being confirmed.”

That feeling of success is especially sweet because Ealey has struggled so long to see the dream come true. The school was scheduled to open in a St. Bernard Parish Catholic school on August 29, 2005, the day Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. All the equipment, books and curriculum materials that she had struggled to acquire washed away in the flood before the school had a chance to operate a single day.

 Then when Ealey returned to the city, determined to start over, she couldn’t find another site. In desperation, she renovated her parents’ flood damaged, three-bedroom house in Gert Town. The two-story house with polished floors is now outfitted with pint-sized desks, math programs, backyard play equipment and Jumble, the boys’ pet gerbil. Specially trained occupational, speech and play therapists rotate days for one-on-one tutoring and a full-time, certified early childhood intervention teacher focuses on math, science and language.

It’s a sanctuary and school of last resort for children deemed unsuitable for “special needs” classes in public schools. Children with severe autism, a brain disorder that impairs social interaction and communication, are often rejected from public schools because the state isn’t willing to pay the high cost of educating them, Ealey says.

 The $8,000 tuition that CLC charges falls short of covering all the expenses of educating the students because they need so much individual attention, but Ealey says she and her husband cover the difference with income from his construction business and fundraisers. Unfortunately, Ealey says, she has a waiting list of 30 and doesn’t yet have the resources to open more classes for higher grade levels. 

CLC uses an instructional approach that Greenspan calls “Floortime.” Greenspan rejects the notion that there’s a single way to reach children with autism. His approach requires teachers to tailor the instructional relationship according to the child’s individual interests and idiosyncrasies. In other words, if the child likes to walk around aimlessly, the teacher must find a way to engage him or her as part of the walking ritual.

 Wendelle Weil, a play therapist at CLC, says she discovered Greenspan when she was seeking help for own autistic child.

Weil said she was broke when she found Greenspan. She had taken out a second mortgage on her house and maxed out her credit cards. When she started, her son couldn’t point, couldn’t talk and had projectile vomiting. Skeptical but desperate, she began studying Greenspan’s instructional method and put her son on a diet devoid of processed foods. The changes worked. 

“Now I have arguments with him,” she says of the transformation. 

CLC’s school day begins at 8:30 a.m. with playtime aimed at regulating the children’s nervous systems. Stacy Badon, a CLC teacher who specializes in autism, says that autistic children “don’t know where their bodies are in relation to space.” Just as many adults must have coffee each day to get going, each autistic child has his or own way to adjust, she says. The adjustments range from spinning like a top to building precisely arranged trains with building blocks. Once the children have entered their comfort zone, they’re ready to tackle classroom work in math, science and language. 

Some days are more challenging than others and the adults must adjust, Badon says. Small things can set a child off and the whole day is wasted. One day in April, for example, one boy had a bad day because street construction prevented his mother from entering the street as they normally did. The next day, she made a U-turn on the street so that she could park the car in the usual direction. With the boy’s normal routine restored, the day went smoothly, Badon says.

Ealey and Winter say their sons have made remarkable progress. Before September, Temple couldn’t hold a pencil, Ealey says. Now he writes legible numbers in answer to math questions. “This would not look like much to another parent,” she says, while holding up his math problems, “but to me it’s astonishing. This is a child who couldn’t write at all.”

With effective and persistent training, Ealey believes that autistic children can learn to lead relatively normal lives, a belief that she says isn’t always shared by public school educators.

“I fully expect to have a child at the end of this journey who can love and be loved, who understands the meaning of joy and who has the skills to support a family,” Ealey says. “I plan to dance on my son’s wedding day.”

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