The Battle to Educate the Autistic

Two years ago, Greg Masucci was shooting home video of his son Max.

“I love Mommy!”

Greg never realized the words would be some of the very last Max would ever speak.

"He could say things, whole sentences, he could say, ‘I love you Mommy.  Miss you mommy.’  Now we're lucky if we can get a syllable out of him," Greg explained.

Max is now 5 years old, autistic and no longer speaks.  A downward slide his parents blame on DC Public Schools.

"They don't have the facilities,” Greg said.  “They don't have the training and staffing for it."

Multiple families told the News4 I-Team it all comes down to a teaching technique called Applied Behavioral Analysis, commonly called ABA therapy.

“You try to find a way to teach the child, in a positive way, to learn the things they need to learn,” explained Ann Boeker Gibbons, the executive director of Autism Speaks for the National Capital Region. “You break down what the steps are and you award the child in discreet steps moving forward to the appropriate behavior."

On the surface, ABA therapy looks easy. Teachers say things like “Excellent!” or “Fantastic!” when a child reads the right word on a flashcard.

But all the experts we spoke with say it requires significant training and, if done incorrectly, can cause even bigger problems.

To explain, Greg gave a hypothetical example. “If you want him to say ‘mango,’ you have to say the word and then give him a mango as the reward. If he doesn't say ‘mango’ but says ‘blueberry’ and they're like, ‘Oh he talked!’ and give him the mango, then they are reinforcing the thing improperly. It does more damage than good.”

Greg gave DCPS a failing grade because he said there aren’t enough ABA trained teachers and aides and too many students per classroom.

DCPS Chief of Special Education Dr. Nathaniel Beers said, "DCPS was non-compliant in all ways, shapes and forms seven years ago."

DCPS told the News 4 I-Team there are currently 676 autistic students taught by 46 special ed teachers. Those teachers receive help from nine ABA trained "coaches."

Dr. Beers explained, "I think we're a program that is growing and improving and that's hard as a parent to watch that happen with your child in the system."

But Kathleen Jackson disagrees. “Training is not a half day in-service. Training is a certificate program. You go to school for it."

Kathleen said DCPS failed her son Sam, too. "He hit, he kicked, scratched, punched, just would up end furniture.  He threw me down a flight of stairs once. He would go after his brothers, when he was in school he went after other students."

When DCPS passed him on to first grade, Kathleen said Sam couldn't speak, count or say his alphabet.  He wasn't even toilet trained.

Kathleen went to court and forced the school system to place her son at Aurora School in Leesburg, Va. - a small private school for special needs kids.

Federal law requires public schools to send students elsewhere if they can't provide for them. 

But DCPS estimated it costs nearly seven times more, or $73,000, to educate a special ed student in one of these private schools.

Five years ago, DCPS had more than 2,500 special ed students in private school. Under Mayor Vincent Gray's orders, it has now slashed that number almost in half to 1,290.

But Kathleen said with just two years of one-on-one ABA therapy at Aurora School, Sam can now read, count money and no longer tries to hurt others.

She worries the better Sam does, the more at risk he is for being pulled back into public school. "I don't want my kid to be a guinea pig. I know there are lots of parents with kids with autism battling D.C. right now because they don't want their kid to be a guinea pig."

Neither do the Masuccis. They're in a legal battle, trying to get DCPS to pay for Max to attend a specialized private school in Rockville, Md. 

But Dr. Beers said he will never pull a child out of private school if it hurts the student. 

If parents give him a chance, he said he will prove DCPS can now educate their autistic children. "Families have to be ready to have the conversation about when it's time to return, which is a very hard conversation to have, particularly for those families who have gotten out because we did something wrong."

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