Ribbon-cutting ceremony with large group.

The Sarah Dooley Center for Autism is transforming the world, one student at a time.

According to the CDC, over the past 15 years, the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), especially among children, has been increasing – with 1 in 54 children receiving a diagnosis in the United States. Children with ASD may have a more challenging time picking up social cues, learning in classrooms and sometimes communicating, but with the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism, it is addressing those challenges, one student at a time.

The Sarah Dooley Center for Autism is a school devoted to assisting children diagnosed with autism and other associated developmental disorders between the ages of 5 and 22. The center uses evidence-based teaching methods to provide each student with highly personalized education and behavioral programming.

We sat down with Adam Dreyfus, the senior director for the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism at St. Joseph’s Villa who has spent his career working with children with disabilities, specifically in the achievement gap, to get the history of the center.

What is it that the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism does, and how does its services and offerings differ and relate back to St. Joseph’s Villa?

St. Joseph’s Villa is the parent organization of Sarah Dooley Center for Autism.  There are 24 programs at St. Joseph’s Villa, and Sarah Dooley is one of them. We have homeless services, after-school programs for children with developmental disabilities and mental health disabilities, in-home services for families, therapy services and a crisis stabilization unit (CSU) for very short-term, immediate support. For example, if a teenager has an explosive event, the police show up. They don’t want to take them to a mental hospital. That’s not the best thing. But they do want to remove them from the home for a day or two to calm things down. That’s what the CSU is about. It’s a great resource for the community.

For a student enrolled at the Sarah Dooley Center, what does a typical day look like?

It looks almost exactly like a public grade school. Every single one of our classrooms is set up like a grade school. We mirror the rhythms of a public school. Students arrive by bus, get off the bus, go to their classrooms and get breakfast, just like you do at the public school. You have a schedule very much like a public school schedule – English in this block, and then we’re doing art, and then we’re making music. We’re going to the playground. Now it’s lunchtime. We wanted to look and feel almost exactly like a public school would feel so that you increase the likelihood that they’ll be successful when they go back to the public school.

Why do you believe this is so important in our society? What are the benefits and disadvantages of having a center like this to support students vs. having an inclusive classroom in a public K-12 classroom?

There’s the pragmatic answer, which is funding. If untreated, a student will require 100% assistance for their whole life, and then it’s going to cost society $4 million to take care of them for their life. But, with intensive intervention like this, maybe the child only needs 95% support, which doesn’t sound like a big number, but you drop 5% off of all of these millions of children, that’s a big dollar number. But the upside is saving societal funds with early intervention.

The second answer is that everybody can have a difference of opinion on what are basic human rights. The pursuit of happiness is probably the best way to capture it all. In the United States, we’ve determined that every child is entitled to a free appropriate public education. From a structural standpoint, we’re providing the federally mandated education, which every child in the U.S. is entitled to. If you’re here at the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism, it’s because you were not successful in the inclusive environment. We have learned that you can’t just take somebody who has severe disabilities and put them in an inclusive environment and through osmosis make it better.

Children with disabilities don’t work like that mainly because they lack the skills that permit them to access those things, so that’s where communication and social skills come in, so that’s what we attempt to remediate.

To learn more about the Sarah Dooley Center of Autism, visit its website, and connect with the organization on Instagram, Facebook,Twitter or LinkedIn and consider donating directly.

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