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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

School focuses on needs of autistic students

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With her son in one hand, and a stack of papers in the other, Tarryn Joiner left the doctor’s office feeling overwhelmed. Her 4-year-old son, Donovan, had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disorder defined by difficulties with social interactions, communication and behavioral patterns. 

She was relieved to finally understand her son’s condition, but she also feared for the future. 

“I was extremely scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to have to do.” 
Immediately after the diagnosis she began researching autism, found her son an applied behavior analyst — a therapist that helps autistic children develop communication, social and school-readiness skills — and delayed his enrollment in kindergarten. 

Joiner said it has been a journey since learning of her son’s developmental disorder, especially when it came to finding the right school for him. She found it at The Independence Academy (IA). Now, Donovan, 14, is getting straight A’s and is enjoying the school day. 

IA, a private school that specializes in the care of autistic students, opened in 2008. Its small student population creates an intimate environment between students, parents and administration to meet students’ educational and social needs. 

The relationship between the school, students and parents begins as early as the admissions process, according to the director of admissions, Andrea Rondinelli. 

“For me, I feel like it’s a great experience for them, from start to finish,” she said. 
The admissions process includes an inquiry about the school, a tour of the school and a shadow day where the prospective student follows a currently enrolled student throughout the school day. 

The 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio also helps teachers cater to the specific needs of each student.

“We can meet the child where they’re at instead of the child climbing to where they think they need to be,” Rondinelli said.

The tuition for IA is $16,000 for the academic year; however, scholarships and state funding are available to defray some of the expenses. 

Joiner pays the full tuition and believes it is worth it because she gets to see Donovan enjoy his time at school. 

Alanna McCullough enrolled her son Samuel, 13, at IA two years ago and noticed her son stopped complaining about going to school.

Instead, she began hearing Samuel complain about having too much work, which she thought was a positive shift because the school is challenging him. 

“I wish more people had access to it, and I wish there were more schools like it,” she said. “There’s so many children who would benefit from schools like this one.”

Marisa Gill, the director at IA for the last 10 years, said the school’s goal is to help autistic students develop the social, communicative and behavioral skills needed to help them thrive and become independent in the future. 

“I think our school can change a child’s life,” Gill said. “We are truly able to do what is in the absolute benefit of the child.” 

Contact staff writer Abriana Herron at (317) 924-5143. Follow her on Twitter @Abri_onyai.

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