In Harlem, a Charter School Recruits Autistic Children

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For the founders of a new charter school opening in Harlem next September, the recruitment process is unlike almost any other.

The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem, which is modeling itself on the Department of Education's popular program for high-functioning autistic students, called ASD Nest, has given itself the ambitious task of seeking out families who may not know their children have the disorder.

The parents might suspect their not-yet-kindergarten-age children behave differently, and doctors and daycare directors might also have their theories, but a firm diagnosis could be years away.

Through a combination of visits to daycare centers, conversations with health clinics, and relationships with community groups, Patricia Soussloff and Ruth Meyer, the school's founders, are recruiting families and providing free evaluations by the Young Adult Institute, a service and resources organization for people with developmental and learning disabilities.

The founders are targeting low-income, minority families, who are often the least likely to seek out a diagnosis for their children. According to Ms. Meyer, the average age at which a black or Latino child is diagnosed with autism is eight; it is closer to four or five for white children.

"We know there are a lot of children out there, particularly in low-income communities, that have not been diagnosed," she said. "What we're trying to do is get the word out as widely as possible in Harlem about what a child on the spectrum might look like. The Nest program doesn’t go out and recruit. We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before."

Like the city's ASD Nest program, which has 23 sites across the city and is in high-demand, the Neighborhood Charter School, which will eventually include grades K-8, will integrate autistic students who have verbal skills and can learn without great difficulty, but have behavioral and social problems, into classrooms with typical children.

The school, which like most charters is public and is sustained by city money, will begin with kindergarten and first grade students. The founders are looking for private space for it in Central Harlem.

The school will hold two lotteries to fill its inclusion classrooms -- one lottery for the 16 seats set aside for children on the autism spectrum, and a second one for general education students.

Another charter school in upper Manhattan, the New York Center for Autism Charter School, also serves children with autism, but they are typically lower-functioning than the students the Neighborhood School hopes to enroll.

What autism looks like, and who is given a diagnosis, is currently undergoing a revolution as the American Psychiatric Association is seeking to redefine the disorder.

The new definition would tighten the criteria for autism, potentially lessening the rates of diagnosis but also affecting children and families who would otherwise have been eligible for services.

Ms. Soussloff said it is unclear how the new criteria would affect her applicants, who could find themselves on the other side of a newly drawn boundary that puts them outside of the disorder's definition.

For now, she and Ms. Meyer are focusing on recruitment and school design, aided by the principal they recently brought on board, Brett Gallini, the former principal of Public School 165 Robert E. Simon in Manhattan.