Cabarrus schools reach out to autistic children

Lounging comfortably on a park slide, Cameron Poulin rattles the ice in his drink and digs through his Happy Meal box mining for that last evasive French fry. Most days, his mom, Christin, takes him to one of the playgrounds in the Laurel Park neighborhood where they have lived for more than a year.

They chose the subdivision not for its amenities, architectural designs of the houses, or work commutes, but for the school district's innovative approach toward teaching autistic children.

Cameron, 11, was diagnosed at age 3 with autism while living in Thomasville. Researching the best school districts for children with the disorder led Poulin to sell her house and build in Cabarrus County. It's a move she has never regretted.

"The teachers are fantastic," said Poulin, of the instructors at Weddington Hills Elementary School. Cameron now attends a class there designed for students with autism. "Mrs. LaFave, she actually works with these kids. She actually tries to teach these kids something. It's not like, 'Oh we're just here to keep them occupied.'"

Vic Shandor, director of the exceptional children program for Cabarrus County Schools, knows of the frustration many parents have felt in other systems. His office often fields calls from parents of autistic children all over the country interested in relocating to Cabarrus County. "We have a strong reputation for serving students with autism," said Shandor. "I feel like our district has been extremely innovative and forward thinking."

Ten years ago, the district had few classrooms dedicated to teaching students diagnosed with autism. Only three classrooms, one at each level, elementary, middle, and high school, were geared toward children with the developmental disorder.

CCS has seen a rise in autistic children by increments of 20 new students each year since 2004. In that school year, the county taught 60 autistic children. Today that number has risen to 199.

With the increase of children diagnosed nationally and locally, the district began examining new approaches for instructing its growing autistic population.

Because of the wide spectrum of autism disorders, ranging from mild to severe, CCS offers different programs for students. TEACCH, which stands for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related Handicapped Children, provides instructional and student-management methods aimed at increasing self-sufficiency, communication and socially adaptive behavior.

Learning Connections is another program, designed for students with high-functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome.

"This program, 10 years ago in Cabarrus County, did not exist," said Shandor. Today, there are eight Learning Connections classrooms.

Cameron attends one of the 11 TEACCH classrooms created in the district. Ten years ago, only three such classes were available.

For Emily LaFave, who teaches Cameron at Weddington Hills, the more time passes, the more research brings newer, leading-edge ideas to teaching those with autism.

"Every year it gets better because there's more out there to learn. There's more workshops. There's more professional development opportunities," she said.

Poulin knows her research has paid off when she sees the positive changes in her son.

"His speech has improved," she said. "His attention span has improved. He wouldn't even color. Now he will color.

"He's come so far at Weddington Hills."