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‘A personalized approach’: New school opens in Spokane to help children with autism

Four-year-old Savannah plays with the bubble machine at Ascend Academy on Tuesday in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Four-year-old Savannah plays with the bubble machine at Ascend Academy on Tuesday in Spokane. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

A new school in north Spokane promises the best of both worlds for children with autism.

“What we’re trying to do is create an environment for kids with autism that meets their needs and does it for free,” said Jim Matthews, board president of Ascend Academy.

It’s no surprise, then, that demand is heavy. Classes begin Jan. 4 with room for 20 children, but Matthews and his team already have received more than 50 applications.

The nonprofit is designed specifically for students with severe autism, behavioral disorders, disabilities and skill deficits.

Behavior therapists and teachers work together in a classroom setting to provide special education and behavioral therapy in one place.

The school, located at 1117 E. Westview Court, will share a building with SOAR Behavior Services, a for-profit business owned by Matthews.

Matthews envisions the school filling a gap between public and private schools.

“The public schools are fantastic at what they do, but there is a subset of kids that can benefit from a personalized approach with more supports in place,” Matthews said this week.

“A lot of the time, parents will want a one-on-one (public school) paraeducator assigned to their child, but that’s not feasible,” Matthews said. “Private schools might be more willing to provide more amenities, but they’re more expensive.”

Ascend also is intended to bridge the gap for families who otherwise might have to choose between enrolling their child in school or in therapy services.

Matthews, a school psychologist and board-certified behavioral analyst, said the school will provide applied behavioral analysis (ABA) services to students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

He said ABA therapy helps kids gain skills to lead healthy, happy lives by fostering positive behaviors and responses – such as verbal, social and cognitive skills – through positive reinforcement.

The one-on-one attention is crucial, Matthews said, because children with autism often have behaviors “that are idiosyncratic and individual to them.”

“We can monitor those little signs and can spot issues before they become bigger problems,” Matthews said.

Staff will rotate, Matthews said, but typically each child will work with only two different staffers.

The school also will be open 12 months a year – an important consideration, Matthews said, because “summer slide” is often more pronounced for children with autism.

That’s important, Matthew said, because “a lot of kids with autism have difficulty with transitions, both going into and coming out of summer.”

Matthews expects that Ascend Academy will be supported through donations from local businesses and people.

The ABA therapy provided to students is paid through the family’s insurance.

Depending on how things go next year, the facility could expand at some point. However, Matthews is uncertain whether Ascend Academy would include more K-5 children, or grow to include secondary-age students.

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