Children with autism, classified as high-functioning, face learning curves and social challenges, but they also, in the right hands, learn to walk a path to a life of friendships and meaningful work, to independent living.
Dr. Catherine Trapani, head of The Piedmont School, an educator with the empathy and patience to walk up the mountain with children whose language, behavior and social communication are affected by the neurological and developmental disability termed autism, understands the need for individualized programs for her students.
“By choice,” she says, “we will never have more than eight children in a classroom with two teachers to give time and attention to individual needs.”
“Our goal is for children to have options to do what they want to do in life,” she continues. “Do they want to go to college, to vocational school? I want them to know the experiences they can have in a community, the joy and comfort of learning, what kind of art they enjoy, how they can help others through volunteer work later on.”
Dr. Trapani believes in “hooks,” to hang learning on, a trip to the Georgia Aquarium to study the ecosystem, a visit to the Etowah Mounds when studying Native Americans, a morning at a food bank to learn about sharing.
Her students are also learning practical life lessons. When a chef introduces a class to cooking skills, the children serve, eat, clean up and load the dishwasher after practicing measuring techniques and following recipes.
The Piedmont School of Atlanta is located in Brookhaven and shares facilities with the Boys and Girls Club, whose programs begin after school hours. The rooms are bright and airy. There is a computer lab, an art studio, a kitchen and a gymnasium, plus two playgrounds and a baseball field.
Classes beginning in the fall semester will include instruction for kindergarten through sixth grade with future enrollments planned through high school.
The school is accredited. Students are tested at the beginning of each year so teaching teams know exactly where individual needs lie. All teachers are certified in regular and special education.
There was a time when, with the detached eye of an observer, we read of a school’s promise for children, but no more. One in 66 children in Georgia is affected by autism, four boys to every girl. Nationally, a new study concludes one in 68 children falls under the spectrum of the disorder.
What we know is early intervention with one on one instruction and work with children to develop language skills is life-changing. To have an opportunity to study in small groups, not only experiencing basic academics, but growing in social and emotional development, lays the foundation for healthy relationships and a meaningful life.
Dr. Catherine Trapani brings years of experience to her work at The Piedmont School. Formerly the director of the early intervention program at The Marcus Autism Center, she has an innate sense of what a child needs and how to find his gifts, hidden under the dark shadow of autism.
On a personal note, I watched her work with and literally give voice to a small boy, only two and a half, who had no words of his own. Over and over, repeating and then again, a phrase, a sentence, she opened a world of listening and speaking to him.
Now, 12, an avid reader and honor roll student, that boy, my grandson, reclaimed his life with “Dr. Cathi” by his side. The Piedmont School is an answer to prayer for parents who have tried avenues of help from diet to medication as their children struggle with autism.
“Learning adventures at our school count on experienced teachers and personalized instruction,” Dr. Trapani says. “We want children to be life-long learners.” What better gift?
Judy Elliott lives and writes in Marietta.