School Choice Offers Flexibility for an Autistic Child

Published March 1, 2004

Some children aren’t ready for public schools, and public schools aren’t ready for some children. Carson Smith is one of those children.

Three years ago, Carson was like most two-year-olds: He liked to put things into his mouth. And like most moms, his mother Cheryl was always alarmed at what he was putting into his mouth. When Carson bit and broke a mercury thermometer, she was terrified. She rushed him to the hospital in Sandy, Utah, where doctors showed her x-ray images of the mercury Carson had swallowed. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do. The mercury would pass. All Cheryl could do was wait.

Two weeks into the waiting, the shoe dropped. Carson went from babbling to mute. He couldn’t make noise. He couldn’t talk. His social skills disappeared. He wouldn’t sit still. He threw uncontrollable temper tantrums. He wouldn’t even acknowledge when his mom or dad called him, no matter how stern–or loving–they were. The doctors diagnosed him with pervasive developmental disorder, a mild form of autism.

Cheryl enrolled him in the Jordan Valley School, a public preschool serving special-needs children. Although Jordan Valley helps many students, the school couldn’t provide the intensive interventions Carson needed. Staff recommended Cheryl try the Carmen B. Pingree School, a private school specializing in autistic students. After observing Carson for a few hours, Pingree diagnosed him with full-blown autism.

Cheryl enrolled Carson at Pingree, where he has since made a great improvement. Starting with simple tasks–like having to sit down and hold his toes still for three seconds–Carson has progressed to the point where he can now sometimes “attend”–sit still and look at the person talking to him–for a minute or more. He has learned to use the Picture Exchange Communications System to tell people what he wants. If he wants a Tootsie Roll, for example, he finds his picture book and shows Cheryl the appropriate page.

In addition, Pingree provides training for Cheryl and her family in how to communicate with Carson and how to cope with the challenges he faces.

But Pingree’s services don’t come cheap. To support the school’s student-teacher ratio of 2:1, Pingree tuition is $21,000 per year. While Carson was in preschool, the state paid his tuition. Now that he is five and in kindergarten, it doesn’t. Cheryl and her husband Frank managed to scrape together enough for the first year’s tuition, but they don’t know how they’re going to come up with $21,000 every year. Some families have taken out second mortgages to find the money for the tuition.

At Cheryl’s prompting, her local legislator, Rep. J. Morgan Philpot, toured the Pingree school and met with Carson. Moved by her love, Carson’s needs, and Pingree’s ability to meet those needs, Philpot called from the school to ask legislative staff to look for a way to help students like Carson.

Philpot is now sponsoring the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Bill, a measure based on Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, where parents can direct their child’s special education funds to a private school. Cheryl is the bill’s biggest cheerleader.

“Right now, he is like wet cement,” she says of her son. “With the right care now, while he’s young, he may be able to someday go into a regular public school. He may be able to ride the bus, to hold a job.” Without the early intervention he’s getting at Pingree, though, he will harden, and never become a contributing member of society.

Royce Van Tassell is the executive director of Education Excellence Utah. His email address is [email protected].