In Recess

Void Spurs Lawyer/Mother to Found Public School for Students on the Autism Spectrum

Attorney-mom successfully pushes for creation of a public charter school for students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder

, Daily Report

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Devon Orland with her son Robert, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Orland helped found DeKalb's Tapestry Public Charter School for middle school children with autism.
Devon Orland with her son Robert, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Orland helped found DeKalb's Tapestry Public Charter School for middle school children with autism.

Devon Orland, the mother of twin boys Robert and Collin, knew she had to do something. Robert, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, was performing well in elementary school, but in a few years would be off to middle school. Support for children with Asperger's or autism—now called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—was almost nonexistent in public schools. As she spoke with other parents of children "on the spectrum," Orland realized she was not alone in her concerns.

"I had a friend who was going through the process of her son entering middle school," she recalls, "and [her son] was really struggling with it because for the first time in his educational career, they were trying to put him in a contained classroom."

With that friend, Tonna Harris-Bosselman, Orland began investigating charter schools two years ago. That culminated in the pair founding the Tapestry Public Charter School, set to open in August. The DeKalb County school educates students in grades 6–12. Orland's sons are now in the fourth grade.

Orland, a senior assistant attorney general, says when she first broached the possibility of a charter school for students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, community response was overwhelming and it became "abundantly clear" there was a need. Orland spoke with the Daily Report about the Tapestry Charter School and her desire for it to become a model for other school systems.

How did you decide on the name Tapestry?

Our board was sitting around the room brainstorming, and we were talking about how things combine and different ways that we can express combination. Someone mentioned quilts and that's where it came from.

Did you have anything as a model for this? Is there another charter like this anywhere in the country?

There is not. There are a few elementary schools out there in different states, but everybody's charter laws are different. We did some investigation, and there are lots of private schools, but the problem with a private school is they're not inclusive. Nobody is going to send his typical child to a private school with a bunch of autistic kids for 20 grand a year, so really the only opportunity to create something like this is in the public school arena.

Do you think this will be the model for others?

We desperately hope so. We are trying to create a model that can be replicated. In the '80s, the numbers (children with autism) were one in 10,000. Now it's one in 50. There has been a 507 percent increase of children with autism in the public schools, and it's such a broad spectrum.

My child is exceptionally gifted, I'm told. I'm not just bragging. But his social skills are abysmal, and his ability to transition is even worse than his social skills. So I'm not even sure he could walk into a traditional middle school. It's just too many people.

I know there has been some controversy around what causes ASD. What do you think is responsible for the huge increase in numbers?

I don't know. If you ask my son, he'll tell you he's just higher evolved than the rest of us, and we shouldn't feel bad (laughs).

I don't know that we'll ever really know. A lot of research, money and time are going into finding out what the cause is and that's important. It's very, very important, but there's not been a lot of research or time or money put into taking care of the kids that are here.

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