Thursday May 6, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- Hillcrest Educational Centers is expanding its capacity for working with young people with autism.

The educational network, which serves at-risk students with behavioral disorders, is in the midst of a $400,000 construction project. It is building a new 2,000-square-foot autism wing and adjoining parking lot at its Housatonic Academy day school campus on West Street in Pittsfield.

"There's a growing autistic population in the country, but you can also see that here in Berkshire County," said Gerard Burke, Hillcrest's president and CEO. Burke on Wednesday led an Eagle reporter on a site visit.

Autism is a general term for a range of developmental disabilities known as autism spectrum disorders. People with autism are affected differently. Individuals termed as "high-functioning" have what are considered normal levels of intelligence and mobility. So-called "low-functioning" people on the autism spectrum may not speak and their autism may be combined with physical impairments.

The common characteristics between autistic people is that they have significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Scientists still have not determined all of the causes of autism spectrum disorders, which develop in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently estimate that about 1 in 110 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder.

The Housatonic Academy began developing its program for high-functioning children on the spectrum two years ago, under the guidance of former program director Susan Strong. Today, the program, now under the direction of Allison Billard, has grown to include young people who range across the spectrum.

"It's been a bit of a challenge for us in terms of space and work area," Billard said.

Currently the school has eight students who are specifically designated to an autism classroom. Four other students with autism spectrum disorders are part of an integrated classroom.

Burke said that Hillcrest has between 25 and 35 students with autism spectrum disorders in total among its residential programs.

Some autistic people have high sensitivities to light and sound while others, often low-functioning individuals, will grunt or make loud noises in response to a stimulus. So if, for example, a sound-sensitive student was in the same classroom as a student who tends to scream, it could become an upsetting environment for both people.

"I can't wait to get a new classroom," said Nicholas Wilson, a Housatonic Academy student whose classroom contains both low- and high-functioning students with autism. "It will be nice to have more space and for them to have their own classrooms," he said.

The construction and autism curriculum is being developed by the school with consultation from The New England Center for Children.

Installed on the school's west side, the new wing will contain two main classrooms. One will have the capacity for eight high-functioning students and their teachers and aides. The other will have the capacity for five low-functioning individuals and their staff. There will also be a full bathroom and a "sensory room" where students can use games, toys and other tactile devices to help them function better. Students are also getting a new computer lab.

The building is scheduled to be completed in early June.