At 5, my son, Niko, was still in diapers.
He didn’t know how to communicate. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him. I was afraid for him to learn new skills because he threw fits and cried out in frustration.
All this changed when I found the right school for him. From the time I walked through the doors at NYC Autism Charter School East Harlem (NYCACS), I knew my son was home. That’s where he—and my family—needed to be.
The difference was obvious right away. Moira Cray, the school’s director of transition and community outreach, reached out to Niko to hug him, and before I could warn her that was a bad idea, it was too late.
But Niko hugged her back, which he had never done before!
In less than two years at NYCACS, I no longer think in terms of what Niko, now 7, cannot do, but what he will do.
Before, Niko was in a District 75 school, a public school in New York that serves children with disabilities and special needs. My husband and I visited his class one day and saw Niko sitting off to the side of the room by himself. Niko, while nonverbal like the other five students in his class, was the only child who did not have severe emotional challenges. Niko languished while his teacher, who had never taught before, struggled with his classmates.
We were disheartened. If we left Niko in that school, he would continue having his diaper changed. There was little hope he could learn to talk surrounded by only nonverbal children.
So we researched other schools and discovered the NYC Autism Charter School. It’s the only public school of its kind in New York. It has 32 students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds and 28 classroom staff members.
Most of its classrooms have a 1:1 ratio, so students receive individualized attention. Each class is supervised by highly trained teachers. In New York, most schools that are similar to NYCACS in design and quality are expensive private schools that cost between $95,000 to $150,000.
We lucked out because a student graduated, opening up a spot, and Niko’s name was pulled from the lottery.
On our first day, administrators and teachers asked us what goals we wanted to set for Niko. Number one on the list was to get Niko potty trained. He was nearly 6 at that point.
Within his first 30 days at school, he finally learned. Not long after, his teacher came to our home to make sure he could repeat it at home. He did it effortlessly, and he has now been potty-trained for a year.
I was wowed.
Our next goal for Niko was to help him verbalize words. We hoped he would learn to say sounds and signal when he needed help or to go to the bathroom.
Although Niko can’t have a conversation yet, he’s learned to say many words, including the one any parent wants to hear first. I can’t tell you the emotions I felt when he first said, “Mom.”
The school has never once said that Niko is not going to be able to speak. It’s not a question of if, but when.
Accountability is the biggest part for me. The school holds monthly clinics so parents know what goals our children are meeting. We always get asked about what we want our son to accomplish. We don’t have to wait once a year to know how Niko is doing.
Our children each have an individual plan regardless of what their diagnosis is; it is not one-size-fits-all. NYCACS asks for parents’ opinions to create a plan that works for them. And every step of the way parents are told what the school is thinking of implementing for our children.
It’s like “white glove” treatment. I never feel like Niko is being lumped in with other children but recognized for who he is. The school takes the time to get to know our family and in turn, they become family, too.
I’ve learned so much about Niko since he’s been with the school. He likes to be challenged. I didn’t know that before. I used to be afraid to give him puzzles because he got frustrated, but the school gave them to him, and now he enjoys spending hours putting pieces together. Not only is Niko pushed to do new activities, but he also becomes good at them.
I want Niko to one day live independently—to cook, clean, maintain a household. I want him to be able to navigate the world. I want him to be able to voice his opinion. I want him to be able to say when he needs something. I want him to understand and to be understood.
Do I think that’s possible? Absolutely. With this school, it is.
I’ve seen the children that are older and the things they can do. They use public transit by themselves, shave, count change and shop for groceries. When students turn 16, they have internships and jobs at Facebook, Shake Shack, El Museo del Barrio and other places. They’re out in the community, not isolated. NYCACS prepares students to be independent adults. What other school is so hands-on?
Parents of children with autism are used to fighting for everything, especially when it comes to schools. It’s even harder for parents of color. We feel like we’re invisible although there are a lot of us out there. When you read stories about children with special needs, they’re mostly White. Same goes for the great schools serving children with autism. I live in the Bronx, and I was used to often going out of the borough to get Niko services because there was so little available for him. That’s not an accident.
That’s why I’m glad the NYCACS just opened a second school in the South Bronx, so more families like mine don’t have to travel so far to find a good school for their child.
I tell people my son has autism. I don’t tell people my son is autistic because autism is not what defines him—he defines it, thanks to his school.