Pressley Ridge School for Autism: A New School, a New Leader and a New Approach
By Nancy Kennedy, Western Pennsylvania Guide to Good Health via GuideToGoodHealth.com
Pressley Ridge has opened a School for Autism that features a state-of-the-art facility, a new approach to autism education and a new leader in Director Rebecca Moyes, M.Ed. The School for Autism serves children and young adults ranging in age from 5 to 21. Offering academic, social and vocational programs, the School is one of an array of Pressley Ridge programs for youth with autism spectrum disorders. Pressley Ridge was one of the first regional providers of schooling specific to autism spectrum disorders and has a rich history of serving this population. The school serves a growing population and operates in an expanded space that facilitates the environmental modifications that autism education requires. It utilizes a highly individualized approach to each child and emphasizes parental empowerment.
“Our approach is data-driven,” Moyes explains. “We base the child’s individual program on data that we gather from social, sensory, behavioral and communication and occupational therapy evaluations, as well as academic assessments. Every child learns differently, so we use all different approaches. You cannot pigeonhole a child into one particular autism methodology.”
Progress is defined differently for each child, Moyes says. “We’re seeing amazing progress. Often, school districts that are trying to educate these children are at a loss; they’re simply not equipped to meet their needs. Without appropriate programs, children with autism can exhibit behavior that is difficult to manage. Schools must be prepared to address the social, language and behavior struggles of children with autism in order for the child to be successful.”
A graduate of Grove City College and Penn State University, Moyes is an expert on autism education and curriculum development. She has been a highly-sought consultant/trainer for school districts and community agencies throughout the country. She has extensive experience as a teacher in public and private schools and is the author of five books on autism education and learning environments. Before becoming Director of the School for Autism, she was a consultant to Pressley Ridge.
The program offered at the School for Autism is representative of a new approach to the specialty. “This is a new age of autism,” Moyes says. “In the past, educators adopted a hit-or-miss approach when they worked with kids on the spectrum, but now there is a growing body of research to support what we do. Parents are better informed today; they want the children to grow up to be independent adults; with that in mind, the School for Autism recognizes the need for vocational training.”
The School for Autism staff includes nine teachers and a team of support persons. Each class has four or five students with a teacher and an aide; some children have individual aides. There is a Behavior Support Specialist assigned to each classroom to observe and graph behavior problems. Their work becomes the basis of positive behavior support plans for the children. The school has a state-of-the-art sensory room and a sensory corner in every classroom. These areas can be effective in calming a child who is hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, but also have the capacity to increase alertness in a hyposensitive child.
A creative and practical aspect of the School for Autism is the development of small businesses. These enterprises serve the public, addressing community needs while equipping students with social and job skills. The school features “transitional labs” that enable students to function in a simulated office, culinary, horticulture or housekeeping environment.
Parental involvement is a key aspect of the School for Autism program. Every family is assigned a Family Liaison, who is a professional in education, mental health or social work. The Family Liaison serves as a resource to parents and assists them to help their child apply new skills and behaviors at home. Family trainings take place monthly. To Moyes, this is important: “Parents must be advocates. We believe that parents know what the child needs; they need information and support to act on that. If a parent feels that a child isn’t making progress and isn’t in the best setting, they have a right to initiate the process to transfer the child.
“It can be enormously stressful for parents to see the child struggling. We often find that when children are transferred here, their behaviors improve quickly because we provide the one-to-one assistance that they require.”
Director Moyes clearly has a passion for autism education and shares that passion with her team. “I’m fortunate to have a group that really cares about the children. We know we have a unique program and we want to offer it to any child that needs it. If a family feels that their child belongs here, they should contact us and come for a tour. We will work with their school district. Parents have a choice and their choice should be honored.”
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