LEWISTON — This fall, Lewiston’s expanded autism program will begin teaching 17 students who would have been in a more expensive, private program, Lewiston’s Special Ed Director Jill Hastings told the Lewiston School Committee Monday night.

The new program will teach 20 students, Hastings said.

There will be three new small classes, often with a one-on-one student-per-staff ratio. There will be two autism classes at Geiger Elementary and one at Lewiston Middle School.

“I’m excited,” Hastings said Monday night. “Some of you may remember a time when students with disabilities weren’t allowed in public schools at all. When I was eight years old, my mother would drive a little girl with cerebral palsy to the rehab center once a week.”

Hastings asked her mother why the girl couldn’t go to school.

Her mother answered, “Because kids with handicaps can’t come to school.”

The laws changed.

“We now have a mandate that every student is entitled to a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment,” she said.

But until now, Lewiston schools haven’t been able to provide the needs for students with autism, Hastings said.

Behavior analyst Cherie LaFlamme, hired this year, said she’s excited about working in Lewiston public schools. During the years she worked in the private programs, “I kept saying, ‘These kids don’t have to be here. The public schools could do this if they had the right training.’ I felt like our kids were missing out by being separated by their peers.”

It’s not only good for students with disabilities, and it’s good for typical students, LaFlamme said. By interacting and better understanding special needs students, children better learn compassion and how to communicate with them.

Learners with autism have complex needs in language, social development and behavior problems.

“The program we developed has to be very complex,” LaFlamme said.

Some of the students do speak. Others do not, but communicate through pictures. Teachers work hard on social skills, one of the key deficits for a child with autism.

“We want to build their independence, their confidence,” LaFlamme said.

This year, a pilot program was held at Geiger with good results, educators said. Without the class, all seven students would have had to be in a more restrictive, expensive private program, educators said.

One note from a parent of one of those children said her son made good progress this year because of the Geiger program.

“His speech is fantastic,” the parent said in a written statement. “He tries so hard, and has been doing so well.” 

Superintendent Bill Webster said once the program is fully operational and established.

“We anticipate we will be saving a minimum of $20,000 per student,” he said. “We’re not going to spare any expense getting this thing off the ground.”

That $20,000 in savings will be an annual rate, Webster said.


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