April is Autism Awareness Month

Parents are grateful for the services offered at district schools

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  • Mayor Bettina Bieri, center, proclaims April Autism Awareness Month in the township. She is flanked by, from left, parents Wendy Becker and her son Wyatt, Rachel Youngren, Brian McCarter, administrator of the New Beginnings program, and Jodie Corforte, program coordinator.

April is Autism Awareness Month, a time dedicated to spreading awareness about this neurological disorder that affects millions.

The common signs of autism
The hallmark feature of autism spectrum disorders is impaired social interaction. As early as infancy, a baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement.
Children with an ASD may fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with other people.
They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can’t understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behavior. They may lack empathy.
Many children with an ASD engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging.
They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me.”
Children with an ASD don’t know how to play interactively with other children.
Some speak in a sing-song voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking.

New Beginnings, a school for children on the autism spectrum, has three annexes in West Milford: the Maple Road and Apshawa Elementary Schools and the Macopin Middle School.

What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group.
- National Institute of Health
By the numbers
1 out of 88 children age 8 will have an ASD
Males are four times more likely to have ASD than females
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Public schools provide early intervention services for children on the spectrum from infancy to three years of age; they are aged out at three. New Beginnings, a private school housed within the public schools, fills the void by providing essential services for special needs children to help them reach their full potential.

“When he started, he was pretty much non-verbal and very introverted and through all the therapies, they’ve really brought him out of his shell and he’s a very happy and smart six-year-old boy.”
Rachel Youngren, mom of six-year-old Jeffrey, who has autism and attends New Beginnings program in West Milford

New Beginnings started with a single school in Fairfield that serves students up to age 21. The local annexes in West Milford serve children from age three through middle school. The school offers academic subjects including reading, mathematics, language arts, social studies, science, health and life skills. The instructional approach is eclectic and tailored to the needs of each student.

Kids making progress
Rachel Youngren, president of New Beginnings Parent Professional Organization (PPO) has a six-year-old son, Jeffrey, who has attended Maple Road School since he was three.

“It is so important to us because he’s able to go to a private school that can really attend to his autism and apraxia [a speech disorder]," Youngren said. "It’s something that at this time a typical public school would not be able to handle. It’s a place where he can receive the education and learning environment that he needs within our own local school district.”

According to the New Beginnings Web site, each classroom is led by a full-time certified teacher of students with disabilities. Depending upon the type of students in the classroom, teacher assistants are assigned to classrooms, ranging from a 4:1 to 1:1 student to teacher ratio. One-on-one assistants are also assigned when specified in a student’s individualized education program (IEP).

Services are provided for each student according to what is specified in the student’s IEP. Speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists conduct therapies in state-of-the-art “suites” and are provided with an array of tools and supplies.

“The teachers are wonderful; I can’t say enough good things about them. My son loves them,” Youngren said. “When he started, he was pretty much non-verbal and very introverted and through all the therapies, they’ve really brought him out of his shell and he’s a very happy and smart six-year-old boy.”

Additional staff members include a board-certified behavior analyst, a full-time art teacher, a reading specialist, and other outside consultants.

The Parent Professional Organization, which Youngren heads, is “a way for our parents to come together and talk about our children.” It also provides outreach to the West Milford community.

Parents value the services

Wendy Becker, parent and head of outreach for the program, talked about the full-day program and what it has done for her six-year old son, Wyatt.

“We are just so fortunate, it’s right here in our town; my son can attend the same school where he would have if he did not have a disability,” said Becker.

Wyatt was diagnosed with autism and, like Jeffrey, started New Beginnings when he was three. Becker said the West Milford public schools, although they did have a developmental preschool, did not have a program to serve children over three, nor did they have the services to meet Wyatt’s needs.

Becker said Wyatt has received all the therapies he needs at New Beginnings: speech, occupational and physical therapy, art therapy, yoga, even visits by therapy dogs, which the kids love.

“They have a wonderful team of highly-trained specialists to meet the kids’ needs," said Becker. "It’s a comprehensive program which uses Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), an empirically validated therapy for kids with autism. It’s one of the most effective therapies. They break all of his learning into small steps. All learning is taught in a very direct way with individual attention.”

Consistency through summer

New Beginnings has a six-week summer program which is really a full-day extended school year program. Becker feels fortunate to have a school with these services right in West Milford. During summer school, she said,

“They incorporate fun, they go outside and have water play, but it’s a continuation of the learning," she said. "Academics continue. That’s important for kids with autism; they need that consistent routine.”

Becker notes that if New Beginnings wasn’t available, her son would have to go out of district, to the Fairfield school or even farther to have his educational needs fulfilled.

“New Beginnings has taken Wyatt and given him these experiences, and taught him in the way he needs to be educated,” Becker said. “When he entered the program, he didn’t have a lot of language, he had a lot of behavioral issues, feeding issues, and sensory problems. They’ve really addressed each one of those areas. He’s completely blossomed.”

Isn’t that what we all want for our children?

For more information on New Beginnings Annex Programs in West Milford, contact Brian McCarter, principal, at 973-208-7142.

Do you want to share your experiences with New Beginnings? Go to westmilfordmessenger.com and tell us about it.

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