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Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014 6:27 am

People speak about autism as if it were the embodiment of hopelessness. It’s a disorder marked by lacking — a lack of social awareness, a lack of communication skills from an early age, a lack of understanding of emotions — and one that doesn’t have a cure. It’s treated and discussed as if it were a death sentence for life.

Autism, however, is a complex disorder that doesn’t always require a lifetime of aid and an absence of independence for the person who has it. All it takes is some guidance and training for a student on the lower end of the spectrum to achieve a life of his or her own, which is the goal of the soon-to-open Pieceful Solutions charter junior high school and high school in Gilbert.

This will be the third Pieceful Solutions campus in the East Valley — the school has locations in both Chandler and Mesa — albeit the only one aimed at students in grades six through 12. School owner, founder and executive Kami Cothrun said the Gilbert campus is designed for students on the lower end of the autism spectrum; for example, students who were classified with Asperger’s syndrome before the definition changed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“(It’s for) those kids who have a little bit of autism,” she said.

What Pieceful Solutions offers

Students receive an education with aspects akin to what’s found at regular schools — a curriculum based on Common Core standards with English, math, reading, social studies and science, as well as electives like art and Spanish. Chief Operating Officer Robin Rollando said students get a few traditional and nonacademic experiences like prom and homecoming, and there’s even a boys basketball team that will compete in a charter league.

“We may not win a single game, but that’s not what it’s about,” Cothrun said.

The school also follows the Chandler Unified School District’s school year calendar.

All of that comes with a bit of a tweak to adapt to the needs of autistic students. The school curriculum includes practical life-skill lessons about how to cook, do laundry and make the bed, as well as activities like karate. Cothrun said much of the learning is based on visuals — lessons on making the bed are outlined on photographic step-by-step instructions — and the facility has a room developed to calm students before they become absorbed in what Cothrun called a meltdown. Meltdowns come when a person with autism becomes overwhelmed and loses control and can escalate into screaming and violent flailing.

Cothrun said one of the school’s goals is to handle a meltdown by calming down a student or trying to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

“These kids just don’t explode out of nowhere,” she said.

Handling the complexities of autism

The classroom experience is also designed to provide as much comfort and as little distraction to students as possible. The latter factor is important, as Cothrun said autistic students can have heightened senses and are prone to become distracted easily.

“If a student does this,” Cothrun said while tapping a pencil on a desk four times, “the autistic student is distracted.”

Tailoring a school for autistic students isn’t easy given the aforementioned diversity inherent within an autism diagnosis. While there are certain traits like social awkwardness exhibited by most autistic people, the spectrum is broad enough to encompass contrasts.

Some people with autism have trouble communicating verbally, while others can talk a person’s ear off on a specific subject. Some really abhor being touched, but others, like Rollando’s 20-year-old son Anthony, actively seek out human contact in the form of a hug, albeit not because of the emotional connotations that come with it.

“It’s not that he wants the hug; he wants the compression,” she said.

Juggling the wide array of requirements for those students is tricky, and Cothrun said the school compensates for that partly by placing students with similar quirks in the same classroom. There’s also an emphasis on relaxation techniques like yoga and worry stones students can grip in class.

There is a trade-off for creating an environment consisting solely of students with autism; a drop in the number of opportunities to interact with students who don’t have autism. The interaction at an early age is important, especially after students matriculate out of the classroom environment and into the real world.

Cothrun and Rollando don’t see that as a potential issue; rather, Cothrun said the environment Pieceful Solutions will instill provides a place to attend classes with peers and figure out what they want to do in a quieter environment.

“These kids get to be themselves. Why can’t we let these kids be themselves and why can’t we accept them for who they are?” Cothrun said.

Defeating perceptions

A hint of a Mr. Rogers’ lessons permeate in Cothrun’s comment. Self-acceptance isn’t easy for anyone, let alone a junior high or high school student who is cognizant that he or she is different from everyone else.

Overcoming the obstacle requires a blend of personal contentment and, in the case of autistic people, a change in how society sees them. As Rollando put it, autistic students have dreams, they have aspirations they want to achieve, and they aren’t born as lost causes.

“They’re just normal human beings with quirky behavior. But we all have quirky behavior sometimes,” she said.

Pieceful Solutions is located at 1515 S. Higley Road. Classes begin on July 23, and additional information about the school is available by visiting piecefulsolutions.com.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-5647 or emungenast@evtrib.com

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