Hospital Seeks To Help Children With Autism

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Romping on a playground is a difficult learning process for the youngest of the school children at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism.

Older students practice over and over the proper way to greet a visitor or how to play a board game.

Seemingly ordinary daily functions are big challenges for students at the hospital-based school, where progress is measured one small task at a time.

"It's wonderful," said Elise Kopit, whose 15-year-old son, Ben, attends the school. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to him. His behaviors are pretty much under control. He used to have a lot of temper tantrums and we don't see very much if it at all anymore."

The school, established two years ago, has classrooms inside an approximately 100-year-old, remodeled pediatric rehabilitation building. Special education programs within 45 miles can send children with severe autism to the year-round school by bus Monday through Friday.

Autism is a complicated developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life, according to the Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Society of America. The neurological disorder affects the functioning of the brain and is four times more prevalent in boys than girls.

Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and leisure or play activities.

The frequency of autism cases in the United States has been growing rapidly, but the cause of the increase remains undetermined, said David Holmes, a psychologist and member of the society's board.

The Cleveland Clinic's school is a rarity because hospitals typically focus resources on medical treatments and physical therapy, he said.

A similar program at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I., provides a school setting for autism patients, as well as people with other behavioral disabilities, spokesman Eric White said.

Vanessa Jensen, director of pediatric psychology at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, said the goal is to place 40 to 50 percent of autistic children back into regular schools by second grade.

"If a child can learn in that environment, that's obviously the preference for lots of reasons," she said.

The annual cost for a school district to send a student to the hospital's school is about $55,000, but that sometimes is less than the cost of providing special education, she said.

The school started with seven employees and six students. Now it has about 40 employees and 31 students, including six preschoolers.

Although drug treatment is available, the school emphasizes behavioral therapy, said Leslie Sinclair, the school's program director. Detailed records are kept each day on what the children accomplish and whether they had any emotional outbursts.

Bernard Rimland, director of the San Diego-based Autism Research Institute, said a hospital generally is not an appropriate place to educate autistic children. He is concerned hospital-based programs would focus on drug treatments, but he said he likes the Cleveland Clinic school's emphasis on behavior education.

"That's basically the teaching system used with Helen Keller, a system of reinforcement in which you reward a response you are seeking and fail to reward a response that is inappropriate," he said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)