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For autistic, small school makes waves across districts

Thursday, February 21st, 2013 | Posted by

At Lattice School, Molly Wills follows the musical lead of Sonoma State University music student Hilary Powers, background middle, as Derek West, left , and Lawrence Abraham, right, join in. Psychologist Debbie Groff listens in. The school specializes in teaching autistic children. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By ASA HESS-MATSUMOTO / Towns Correspondent

Derek West, 21, sits at a table fixing himself some lunch after work. Quick with a smile and a handshake, West would strike anyone as a likable, sociable guy. Like anyone else would be, West is excited and looking forward to graduation — as well as the Disneyland trip to follow.

“Yeah, I like it here,” West said, looking around the bright and colorful schoolroom of Lattice Educational Services off Piner Road. “I have a lot of friends. I’m happy.”

Yet the road from West’s past to his present couldn’t have been longer. Diagnosed with autism around his third birthday, West struggled to fit in at home, in school and everywhere he went.

“It’s devastating to come to terms with the fact that your child is not going to be normal,” said his mother, Tracy West, 44. “Every step along the way is hard — signing off his right to a diploma, a driver’s license, every time he gave up something that other kids don’t think twice about.”

When he was a child, West’s parents were afraid at times to take him out into the community and were concerned that he would never live an independent life. Derek West’s tantrums and rage-induced fits happened daily. Baseball games, eating out and family trips all had to account for the likelihood of Derek West’s behaviors surfacing.

“It wasn’t easy,” Tracy West said.

Emily Wills, left, and speech and language teacher Karen Pihl join hands during a music lesson at Lattice School.

For the Wests, Lattice has been nothing short of amazing.

Derek West is one of 42 students currently enrolled at Lattice, a nonpublic school setting for students 5 to 22 who have been diagnosed with autism and/or other developmental delays and behavioral challenges. The school accepts students who have been referred from school districts throughout Sonoma County and some as far as Mendocino County, teaching them academic and life skills such as doing laundry, having a conversation and riding the bus.

Founded in 1995 by the school’s executive director Nancy Alcott, 56, Lattice was designed to provide individualized, on-going education and learning. A quick tour of the school reveals dozens of patient, on-hand instructional assistants from the Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State, in addition to several credentialed special education teachers.

A number of students carry Velcro books filled with visual icons that can be arranged into sentences for others to understand, a boon for students who have issues communicating verbally.

In every case, students have individualized education plans developed, monitored and adjusted by the staff, parents and district superintendents who meet regularly to ensure their success.

Alcott, who previously worked as the director for special education at the Sonoma County office of education, recognized the need after working a number of years with the districts.

“Many of our students have had a hard time in the public school system,” Alcott said. “The districts that refer them say they need more support. (Our students) were either hitting the staff or targeting other students, or they were tearing things apart and throwing items.

Anthony Vieyra communicates via the Picture Exchange Communication System, a specially designed program for autistic students who have trouble communicating verbally.

“Sometimes we have students who have very intensive self-injurious behaviors. These students need more individualized education than is available in the public school system.”

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, autism is a developmental disorder linked to biology and chemistry within the brain. The symptoms of autism manifest early in childhood, typically by age 3. Despite extensive research, its causes are still unknown.

While the exact number of children diagnosed with autism nationwide is not known, recent studies collected by the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention suggest autism and related disorders are more common than previously thought. One child in 88 is predicted to be diagnosed by the age of 8.

“We started very small, with only about eight students,” Alcott said. “Now we have 42. Parents are asking us to start an adult program for after they turn 22. We’re exploring that, but that takes funding. We’ve just grown and grown over the years.”

With no clinically known cure for autism, experts can only recommend medication and highly-structured programs like Lattice for improving social and language skills and developing work skills. Lattice’s assistant director, Jennifer Ingels, 25, said coming to terms with this can be the tallest hurdle for some parents.

“It can be hard for the parents when they first get to a school like ours,” Ingels said, “realizing that ‘my kid can’t go to an elementary school anymore.’ That can be a hard leap .”

The experience for West and his family was no less intense.

“We tried inclusion first,” Tracy West said. “But as school progressed each year and became more desk-oriented, it became more and more obvious that it wasn’t working.”

Like many parents who see their children through to graduation, West’s family could not have imagined the man he has grown up to be.

“We could not have begun to fathom all the progress Derek has made,” said his father, Frank West, 49. “People need to realize how amazing Lattice is, how patient they are, how much they really care about each individual. For them to do what they do on a daily basis is just wonderful.”

Lattice is located at 3273 Airway Drive, 571-1234, latticeeducation.com.


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Ann Hutchinson is our Santa Rosa correspondent.
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