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Roy • "David, look at me. David, look at me for a second," Susan Harms says to her 15-year-old autistic son.
She repeats the instruction half a dozen times before David is able to pull his attention to her eyes and hold it there for 30 seconds.
"How do you spell 'high'?" she asks.
"H-i-g-h," David replies with age-appropriate chagrin, directing his attention away and back to his iPhone.
"When he looks at me, I know he's getting it into his brain," Harms says. "It hurts him to look at you."
David struggled in a half dozen "brick-and-mortar" public schools, where his access to technology and sensory input was too limited and aides didn't seem to know how to help him, Harms says. She thinks she's finally found the solution in online learning through the Utah Virtual Academy K-12 program.
He has a computer in his room, but can also learn in the living room or in the basement by hooking up the computer to a television. "I don't force him to sit at a desk for eight hours a day because it's impossible," Harms says.
Utah Virtual Academy, one of about 15 online Utah public schools, has an enrollment of more than 2,000 students, and about 14 percent are students with disabilities. Stacey Hutchings, head of the school, says it wasn't designed for special-needs students, but it's working well for them because of its flexibility.
'Let's go home' • Since Harms and her family adopted David at age 4, she has searched for the best way to educate him. David also suffers from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Clashes with teachers and others over issues from bathroom accidents to David's sometimes aggressive behavior kept the family changing schools.
His last day in a traditional school was at an Ogden middle school last school year. David "has this need for electronics," she says, and an aide made the daily demand that he surrender his cellphone. As he had many times before, David begged, "Please, Mom, please don't make me go to school," she remembers.
She gave in.
"I just can't do this anymore," she said, telling her son, "Come on, David, let's go home."
Harms quit her information technology job and is now David's full-time teacher. She estimates he can muster 2½ hours of concentration a day, which she supports by providing him "sensory input" throughout the day.
Sensory integration disorder or dysfunction is a neurological disorder that often accompanies autism, and it hampers the brain's inability to integrate information received from the body's five senses. To help with this, Harms gives David back rubs and brushes his skin with a special brush used with autistic children.
He sits on a silver exercise ball, rather than a hard school chair, and has a sensory swing in his basement where he listens to soothing music.
Kids with autism can feel like a kite, with their bodies disconnected from their surroundings, but the steady diet of sensory input helps David feel grounded and focus, Harms explains.
He currently reads at a third-grade level. In school, he was frustrated during his attempts to do "worksheet after worksheet," Harms says. She later learned David has problems with the muscles in his wrist, triggering pain and discomfort when writing.
At home, he occasionally gets to use his cellphone to complete learning exercises, and she does the majority of his writing and typing as he dictates.
But for the first time, she says, David will now get motivated and do some tasks on his own.
'He wants … a future' • Utah Virtual Academy students do about half their work online. David has a reading teacher, a math teacher and a homeroom teacher who use the online-learning tool Blackboard to interact with students.
Students have access to boxes of books and materials for offline work. The school pays attention to detail, sending students paint for their art projects and even dirt for their science projects. "It's like Christmas sometimes when they get all their boxes," Hutchings says.
Tuition is free at the public charter school, and it has a waiting list of 350 children.
To help keep students from feeling isolated, the school offers weekly field trips, though David often chooses not to go. He socializes with a group from Community Treatment Alternatives, a state-funded service, five days a week.
Meetings about David's Individual Education Plan are organized through the academy, which also organizes his speech and occupational therapy.
David says "he's learning more now than he ever learned," Harms says. "Where he's at now, it's just remarkable … we have conversations, meaningful conversations. He wants to have a future."
Supporting special needs
The Granite School District's Whittier Elementary has a hub designed to give disabled students the sensory input they need to help them focus. Read "Granite's engaging 'hub' helps special needs students succeed"