“A personalized approach”: a new school opens in Spokane to help children with autism

A new school in North Spokane promises the best of both worlds for children with autism.

“What we’re trying to do is create an environment for children with autism that meets their needs and does it for free,” said Jim Matthews, chairman of the board of Ascend Academy.

It is therefore not surprising that demand is strong. Classes begin Jan. 4 with room for 20 children, but Matthews and his team have already received more than 50 applications.

The nonprofit is designed specifically for students with severe autism, behavioral disorders, disabilities, and skill deficits.

Behavioral therapists and teachers work together in a classroom to provide special education and behavior therapy in one place.

The school, located at 1117 E. Westview Court, will share a building with SOAR Behavior Services, a for-profit company owned by Matthews.

Matthews envisions the school filling a void between public and private schools.

“Public schools are fantastic at what they do, but there is a subset of children who can benefit from a personalized approach with more supports in place,” Matthews said this week.

“A lot of the time, parents will want a para-educator (public school) assigned to their child, but that’s not feasible,” Matthews said. “Private schools might be more willing to provide more amenities, but they are more expensive.”

Ascend also aims to bridge the gap for families who might otherwise have to choose between enrolling their child in school or in therapy services.

Matthews, a school psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst, said the school will provide applied behavior analysis (ABA) services to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

He said ABA therapy helps children build skills for healthy, happy lives by promoting positive behaviors and responses — such as verbal, social and cognitive skills — through positive reinforcement.

Individual attention is crucial, Matthews said, because children with autism often exhibit behaviors “that are idiosyncratic and individual to them.”

“We can watch for these little signs and spot problems before they become bigger problems,” Matthews said.

Staff will rotate, Matthews said, but typically each child will only work with two different staff members.

The school will also be open 12 months a year — an important consideration, Matthews said, because the “summer slide” is often more pronounced for children with autism.

That’s important, Matthew said, because “many children with autism struggle with transitions, both before and after summer.”

Matthews expects Ascend Academy to be supported by donations from local businesses and individuals.

The ABA therapy provided to students is paid for by the family’s insurance.

Depending on how things go next year, the facility may expand at some point. However, Matthews isn’t sure if Ascend Academy would include more K-5 kids or expand to include high school students.