This week’s feature school is The Community School in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. It is unique in that its cohort is adolescents and young adults. I had the privilege of speaking with the school’s founder, Dave Nelson. Like many, his career was not in the autism world until it affected him personally. You can hear the podcast below. Enjoy! A big special “thanks” to Dave for taking the time to speak with Affect Autism!
The Community School's Dave Nelson
Dave’s son was diagnosed at age 3, some 25 years ago, and they were lucky enough to find the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model early on. Dave says that what DIR did for his family is that it provided a meaningful foundation to help them to realize what was happening for their son, what was a struggle for him, and when it might make sense to try other programs that they had tried in the beginning. It kept bringing them back to this idea of engagement and reciprocity.
When his son was about 8 or 9, Dave went back to school and became a Licenced Professional Counsellor (LPC). As time went on, his son struggled with educational settings. When his son was entering adolescence and told his father that he wanted a place with infinite support that put no limits on what he could do, Dave started The Community School.
“He needed a place that had infinite flexibility and also infinite opportunity.”Dave Nelson, about his son
The school’s focus is really on how to manage the ups and downs of everyday life, how to think in the gray, how not to rely on rote memory skills, and the absorption of content and knowledge, but also how to build relationships, how to see multiple perspectives, and how to integrate into the larger world.
Dave says that ultimately, where many autistics are at risk, is in their inability to stay connected with others because they get high-jacked by their strong emotional reactions. This is a guiding principle for what he and his staff focus on at The Community School.
The Community School (TCS) is a private, non-profit school that can grant high school diplomas. In Georgia, if you have been a public school student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place and decide to opt out of the public system, you are entitled to a certain amount of money to use to help pay their tuition at the Community School.
The biggest challenge is how to make their school accessible to the most amount of people. It serves adolescents and young adults.
The staff groups of individuals into peer cohorts based on their common goals. The young adults are in various stages of transitioning into adulthood: attending college, getting work experience, or moving out of parents’ home to live independently.
The Students: Pre TCS
Dave says that his staff notices that as new students come to their school, they can usually see which families have been supporting their children in the ways that the community school focuses on, such as whether or not the children have an emerging capability to see the perspective of another person, are able to negotiate and compromise, are can self reflect a little bit and articulate their feelings to some degree.
Other children might be capable in other areas in cognitive or academic ways and might be well-behaved and compliant, but they may have emerged into black and white thinking or more emotionally rigid thinking overall. In adolescence with the complications of hormones, maturity and self-awareness, this can lead to difficulties connecting with others and integrating into the world.
Applying the DIR Model
The school applies the DIR framework in a few ways. It forms the foundation of the approach. It is person-centred in that they help their students articulate goals and be co-collaborators in their experience, with parents being involved as well. They want the students to be able to make decisions for themselves and advocate for themselves.
Dave says that a lot of their children who have come through intensive interventions are externally directed when they arrive at TCS. They don’t have a sense that they can make their own decisions or don’t have the emotional durability to make their own decisions. Dave gives the example of asking a child what his favourite colour was, or what movie he would want to watch between two choices and him not being able to make these simple decisions.
Over time they build trusting Relationships to help children make simple decisions, understand that others might make different decisions, and that sometimes you might need to collaborate to make decisions. The roots of self-advocacy and self-determination start with small ideas such as making decisions about what you’ll wear in the morning, what topic you want to learn about, or where you want to sit in the classroom. All of these experiences help build the capacity to self determine.
The way DIR is infused in the school’s program is that they are process oriented: The staff engages the students in making decisions that affect them, as opposed to a teacher coming in and telling them what is going to happen. The program is also a therapeutic program as there are seven licensed mental health professionals on staff.
There are some are certified teachers, special education teachers, and others who are more passionate about other ways of being such as artists, musicians, or fitness specialists.
The school will on occasion bring in outside people or components online to supplement their teaching to specific areas, such as a student requiring a higher-level mathematics or science course.
All staff is trained in DIR from basic to advanced, and DIR is a part of their weekly training. There is also regular supervision of staff, and a lot of collaboration among the staff in working on student programming.
They do not have specific speech & language or occupational therapy services directly in the school, but will use them as outside consults as required. Some students get these services outside of school but in general, by the time families are working through adolescence, these services have tended to drop off. However, their fitness work at the school is informed by occupational therapy.
What does a school day look like?
TCS has classrooms just like other schools, with teachers or therapists. The students have a schedule that is the same from week to week. It’s also very individualized. For those working on a high school diploma, there are more academics in the schedule. There’s a lot of affinities-based work regardless of academics for everyone, building a lot of learning off of the children’s particular interest and capabilities.
For example, many of their students like dinosaurs or anime, so you might see these themes. There might be students who learn better while they are moving so they have a lot of moving in their schedule.
Every student sees their own individual counsellor once per week and will be 1:1 with a staff member at many times throughout the week, but they are mostly in groups of 2-4 students. They are always working on the capacity to stay attuned to those around them, which gets more difficult the more people you add.
TCS has a significant parent support. They have a required initial parent training, monthly parent support groups, ongoing parent training, and daily online notes to serve as a training mechanism to understand why the school does what they do. The majority of the families they work with do not have a good understanding of the DIR model when they first arrive. In their communication with families, TCS focuses on what the school can help their students do better than they have been able to in the past.
It can be a challenge to ‘fill in the holes’ in the early foundational capacities. The challenge is more about supporting the family as a whole in helping them understand what the school is doing. You have to be able to navigate the world in a more emotionally stable way to take advantage of what’s in the world. The staff spend a lot of time co-regulating to help students manage their own regulation. It’s challenging to show the parents that this work will enable their child to make better use of their cognitive capabilities down the road.
A Rewarding Profession
What does Dave get out of doing this work? He finds it gratifying to provide support to others and has the ability to stay calm when others are in crisis. He also enjoys myth busting: Autistics are as interested in being social as anyone else, so he enjoys providing a program that provides these opportunities and showcasing the success of doing this.
Ultimately it’s not really about schooling or education, it’s really about the transition to the most successful connected purposeful adult life that the school can help people to have. Dave had to give up on the idea of his son getting his high school degree for his son to get to a place where he was able to do that–which he has, and his son is now working on his college degree.
You can contact Dave through the website of the Community School HERE if you have questions about his school. You can also sign up for the school’s newletter HERE. If you have any comments or experiences to share, please Comment below. If you enjoyed this blog post and podcast, please Share this post on Facebook or Twitter.
Until next time…here’s to affecting autism!