In 2019, when Eric Perry-Herrera turned 4, his parents wanted him to enter kindergarten at the Garrison School, near their home.
But because Eric was on the autism spectrum, the district wanted to send him to a special-needs class in the Hendrick Hudson district, near Buchanan.
“They said they didn’t have the resources,” said Eric’s mother, Brenda Perry-Herrera, who now lives in Fairfax, Virginia. “This was against our wishes. We thought he needed to be with neurotypical peers.”
Eric’s case illustrates a challenge for smaller districts such as Garrison (220 students) and Haldane (800). As more children are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, or neurodivergent, districts struggle to provide an education equivalent to children without serious disabilities in the “least restrictive environment,” as required by state law.
As a result, these schools often outsource special-needs students to larger districts. Doing otherwise, and providing expensive services in-house to relatively few children, could wreak havoc on tight budgets that are limited by state-mandated property-tax caps.
No matter how you approach it, educating children with autism spectrum disorder adds many challenges for teachers and parents. The bio-neurological disability includes symptoms such as difficulty with communication and social interactions, obsessive interests, repetitive behaviors and an inability to transition to different tasks.
The number of students diagnosed with autism has grown substantially over the past two decades. Nationally, 1 in 150 children was diagnosed with autism in 2000, compared to 1 in 36 today, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York, 1 percent of special-needs students were diagnosed with autism in 1997, compared to 11 percent today, according to the state Education Department.
These increases have been driven largely by awareness and advocacy, said Dr. Gazi Azad, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains.
Better diagnostic tools allow parents and clinicians to get “better at finding kids that we may have missed,” Azad said. In addition, “parents are speaking up.”
Regina Kaishian, Haldane’s director of pupil personnel services, said that 12 percent of the district’s 140 special-needs students are on the autism spectrum, up from 8 percent in 2011. Garrison has several students on the autism spectrum or who are neurodivergent, said Allison Emig, the principal.
The two districts this year began offering joint classes for neurodivergent children. “The answer for the future for small districts is collaboration,” said Kaishian. Haldane also added a class for up to 12 students in kindergarten, first and second grade with a special-education teacher and two aides.
Kaishian said that Haldane accepts students from other districts, including Garrison, although all five current students are from Haldane. “There is something to be said for keeping children in the district or close to their home community,” she said.
At the same time, Garrison added a class for neurodivergent children in grades 2 to 4 that includes two students from Haldane, said Emig.
That class has made a difference for 7-year-old John Paul Peralta, who can now go to school for the first time with his Garrison peers, said his mother, Guadalupe.
Peralta said her family moved to Garrison two years ago and found that the district wasn’t able to help her son, whose challenges include hyperactivity, attention deficit, speech delays and behavioral troubles.
“They didn’t have all the things that special kids need,” she said. Instead, the district sent John Paul to Hendrick Hudson.
“He only lasted three months,” Peralta said. “His behavior was getting worse.” She said John Paul would jump on chairs, disrupt the class and refuse to listen.
She considered a program in Yorktown Heights operated by the Putnam/Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). “I cried a lot,” she said. “There were many kids yelling and screaming. The place looked like a jail.”
Last year, John Paul received 16 hours a week of occupational and speech therapy at the Garrison School. This year he attends Garrison’s newly formed special-education class. He loves riding the bus with his classmates, said his mother. “He even said on Sunday that he wanted to go to school.”
Peralta added that John Paul is making progress. “He’s speaking more. He’s asking for more things. It’s unbelievable. “
Districts are required to provide an Individual Education Program (IEP) for each student identified with a serious learning or physical disability. The plans are routinely revisited and must be approved by the school board. The state Department of Education also has outlined a “continuum of services” that districts must provide special-needs students, including special-education teachers “embedded” in general-education classrooms, separate special-education classes and resource rooms.
Offering that continuum for every student at every age is a challenge, said Kaishian. Even with 13 special-education teachers, a full-time and a part-time psychologist, two social workers, an occupational therapist, two speech therapists and a behaviorist, Haldane sends seven children out of district, not including the two who attend Garrison.
Garrison has five special-education teachers, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist, and places five children out of district.
The Wappinger Central School District, which has 10,000 students, including 1,700 with special needs, has 300 special-education teachers, 20 speech therapists, 10 occupational therapists and 20 psychologists, said Julia Montoya, director of special education. That team allows Wappingers to serve nearly all of its special-needs students. “We try our best to keep them here,” she said. But the district still sends 250 children out of district.
‘Behaviorism’: Can It Help?
Counselors work to reduce disruptions at school
When Haldane students returned to school following the pandemic shutdown, 8-year-old Alex Ostrow stood outside on the sidewalk, refusing to budge. Like many children on the autism spectrum, Alex was nervous about returning to an environment where he wasn’t comfortable.
Samantha Faughnan, the district’s newly hired behavioral analyst, had a suggestion: Alex could bring something familiar from home, such as his plushies of Mario and Luigi, the video game characters. “It worked,” said Jen Ostrow.
Autistic children can exhibit a wide range of challenging and disruptive behaviors, such as walking out of class, throwing tantrums and self-harm. Behaviorists work to minimize those behaviors.
Consider an elementary school student who couldn’t finish worksheets without shouting at the teacher. “Teachers would say: ‘Never mind, you don’t have to do the work. Just sit here and read,’” said Faughnan. But the child was able to change his behavior when he was offered computer time as a reward.
Motivators have changed over the years, she said. “When I started my career, it was all food — M&Ms and chips. Now it’s always technology.”
Leif Albright, who coordinates the Applied Behavior Analysis programs at Manhattanville College in Purchase, describes behavioral analysis as “operant conditioning. If you do this, you can earn that.”
But the technique has its critics. “They’re trying to make us act like non-autistic people, rather than understanding why we act the way we do,” said Zoe Gross, director of advocacy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. She said the technique is especially galling because it resembles how you train a pet. “They give the kid a command and say, ‘Good girl,’ and give the kid a treat,” she said. “It can be hard to watch.”
Faughnan recoils at the comparison to animal training. “There’s so much more to it,” she said. “We’re not just training them like dogs.”
For example, she said she consults closely with students, family and teachers to understand motivators. She described a student who was in danger of failing because he refused to do homework. When she asked what he wanted, he said he wanted to design videogames. “I said, ‘How can we help you get there? What are you willing to do to get there?’ ” Faughnan recalled.
Melanie Pagano, one of two behaviorists in the Wappingers Central School District, said another part of the job is coaching parents. She described an elementary student who would leave class without warning, throw tantrums and once even injured a teaching assistant.
Exasperated, the child’s mother would take away computer privileges for weeks at a time, only to have her child throw more tantrums.
In response, Pagano set up a chart where the child earned points for categories such as “following directions the first time,” “finishing my work,” “transitioning away from activities when asked” and “keeping appropriate voice volume.” With that structure, the student improved, she said.
Pagano also helped the mother see that, for her child with autism, the tantrums are a form of communication, not disrespect. “Once you understand that, you develop patience,” she said.
That’s partly because every special-education student has specific needs, depending on the nature and severity of his or her disabilities. “The idea that [autism] is a spectrum is very true,” said Kaishian at Haldane. “It’s such a range.”
That’s true of Jake and Alex Ostrow, brothers who attend Haldane. Each is on the spectrum but has distinct challenges, according to their parents, Gene and Jen Ostrow.
Jake, who is 14 and in eighth grade, “has issues socializing with kids his age,” said Jen Ostrow. “During tests he gets very anxious and down on himself.” She added that “when he gets angry, he has issues with self-control, like how to calm himself down.”
By contrast, Alex, 10, is something of a “Jekyll and Hyde,” said his mother. “You could see him one day as happy and outgoing. Then, all of a sudden, you turn around and he’s yelling and using colorful language and dropping chairs to the floor and throwing things.”
Both Jake and Alex attend “integrated co-taught” general-education classes with embedded special-education teachers. Alex also attends smaller classes for math and English and Jake has access to a resource room. His parents say they are happy with the education their sons are receiving at Haldane.
Educators in the Haldane and Garrison districts say they want to offer more services and keep more children within the districts.
“We’re thinking through how we build out this shared continuum,” said Emig, who hopes to add special classes for students in grades 5 to 8 that could be shared with Haldane and other districts. Haldane would like “more targeted specialized instruction in small groups,” said Kashian. The question is, “how can we do that with our small staff?”