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Jeremiah School provides students with autism 'a safe place to be who they are'

Brandon Paykamian • Nov 26, 2017 at 5:53 PM

As the mother of a son with autism, Amy Lowe noticed that her son was struggling in the public school system, so she sought to establish an alternative learning center for children on the spectrum.

That’s how Johnson City’s Jeremiah School was established in 2015. 

“She had the passion, vision and bravery to take a leap of faith and open her own school,” Director Jo Cullen said of Lowe.

The school is now in the middle of its first full year in Johnson City’s Coalition for Kids building, Cullen said.

After its pilot year in 2015, Cullen said the school has had success with its individualized approach to educating children with autism. Since much of the faculty has personal experience and specialized expertise on autism spectrum disorder, Cullen said the school has proved itself to be equipped for the challenge of educating such students.  

Parents have said their children are thriving at the facility. 

“You have to understand each child as an individual. Children learn in different ways, and we can provide that customized environment for them,” she said. “It's very much about knowing your individual, communicating with the parents and adapting your day to cater to the needs of each child.”

In addition to working with parents and children in navigating the unique challenges of autism, educators like Cullen, who is also the parent of a child with autism, often assist in training the faculty at public schools. This training and support, Cullen said, is essential to educating children with autism.

“In a typical classroom, you are bound to come across a student with autism. Public schools want to do the best they can, but often don’t have the tools and training to get the support they need to teach children with autism,” she said.

One of the most important parts of their curriculum is teaching students coping skills and social relational skills. With one in 68 adults living with autism — many of whom have trouble maintaining jobs or housing — she said these skills are critical in helping them navigate the challenges of adult life.

“Unfortunately, a lot of schools don’t have the time to teach life skills — all those skills children need to live independently,” she said. “That's what we're doing alongside a curriculum.”

“We are not constrained like a typical public school. Since we are private, we can design our own curriculum.”

With the help of behavioral specialists employed alongside occupational therapists and speech educators from East Tennessee State University and Milligan College, Cullen said the faculty at Jeremiah School takes a radically different approach to dealing with behavioral issues and other challenges associated with neurodiversity.

A big part of this approach is “meeting the sensory requirements” of the students.

“A typical classroom often has a lot of children in it, so the noise levels are higher. There is a lot of hustle and bustle, which they don’t like,” Cullen said. “We give our students more down time so they can regroup.”

Cullen said the “punitive” disciplinary tactics in most public schools aren’t productive for children on the spectrum. She emphasized that understanding what “makes students tick,” and how to cater to their individual needs is key.

While barring a student from recess, for instance, is often a typical tactic for dealing with behavioral issues in most schools, Cullen said it is important not to restrict stimulation, especially with students on the spectrum. She said many common behaviors, such as fidgeting and repetitive movements and noises, are often perceived as disruptive in traditional learning environments.

But teachers at Jeremiah School see it differently.

“All of those behaviors are their way of releasing. In a typical classroom, a lot of teachers try to stop those behaviors,” she said. “But that’s often the way (students with autism) have to deal with their frustration.”

“If a child is having a meltdown from being frustrated or experiencing sensory overload, it takes a lot of one-on-one time.”

Above all, Cullen said the school, which is largely funded by donations and grants, aims to provide students a “safe place to be who they are” — free from judgment and ableism.

“A very important piece is building relationships because students with autism can be very isolated and withdrawn,” she said. “We believe life is built around relationships.”

For more information on Jeremiah School and future events, visit their website at www.jeremiahschool.com.

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