The definition of the word vista (and the one most befitting this topic) according to dictionary.com is: a far-reaching mental view. The tag line of the Vista school, where my 11 year old son attends is: unique potential within reach. Saying the school has lived up to it’s tag line would be the understatement of the year.
The history of the school is not very old at all. Like so many situations where autism is concerned the concept was developed by a parent whose child attends the school. It was out of necessity that this school came to be. Until Vista opened their doors February 4 2002 in a small cottage in Hershey Pa with a single class of 4 students there was nothing in central PA to aid our school-aged children besides their home districts and the local Intermediate Units. Both of which were severely lacking at that time.
When JR was younger I did a search for schools within Pennsylvania for the education and behavioral management of children with autism. What I found was dismal to say the least. There were a total of 13 schools that touted the education of children with autism. Most schools were in the Philadelphia area eleven I think. There was one in the Pittsburgh area and one in the Erie area. None of these schools specialized in the eduction of children with autism exclusively. And most of them required the child be toilet trained to boot. Children with autism aren’t typically toilet trained as early as their peers are. JR was 10 before he was totally toilet trained. And Vista did that.
Many things have happened to make Vista the bench mark for stellar education for our children with autism. In early 2003 Vista received, from the department of education an approved private school (APS) license. This type of license up until 2003 had not been given by the department of education for 30 years. What the APS has done is to allow families who could not otherwise afford the tuition to enroll their children in the school. With that APS the department of education pays sixty percent of the tuition and the home school district pays the other fourty percent. At the time that JR began his educational career at Vista the tuition was roughly $65,000.00 per year. A typical school year is the standard 180 days PLUS ESY (extended school year) of five weeks over the summer. A recommendation from the home school district and an evaluation of the child’s abilities and needs are done before the child is accepted.
Vista uses applied behavior analysis (ABA) as well as the competent learner model (CLM). JR did relatively well when ABA was the only model. However, when CLM came into the school is when JR began to blossom. CLM came into Vista in the 2005-2006 (I think) school year. This was JR’s third year at Vista. How this program works I don’t understand. Those that implement it do and the results to me is what is important and they are very impressive. Academically JR is catching up to his typical peers quickly. He is able to identify the first six or seven letters of the alphabet, the first five or six numbers and sight words. He can add missing words to a story and he is and has been reading for about 5 years now and not just sight words. He has learned how to swallow capsules and pills thanks to the dedicated staff at Vista.
The only area where there has been any stalling or failure has been speech. JR has been receiving speech therapy since the age of two. He can approximate a few words but can’t have any kind of conversation. It is my belief the reason that speech has never come for him is because of the vaccines he’s received as a infant/toddler. I believe the vaccines damaged the speech center of his brain so extensively that there is no repairing it. God knows we have been trying. He does communicate very well though thanks to his dynavox. Prior to the introduction of the dynavox, JR was aggressive toward others and anti-social toward his peers. Since he can communicate effectively now the aggressions are all but gone. The only time we see aggressive behavior is if he is being denied access to something. His social skills have improved greatly as well. Before the only people who would socialize with that were close to his age was his sisters; Kayla 20 and Samantha soon to be 15. Other than that he would totally ignore his peers. In school now, he plays games with his peers (learning the concepts of taking turns), he’ll do art projects with his peers and he will even share with his peers. Granted much of this peer interaction is planned and part of his IEP.
I talk about Vista a lot and I am very impressed (I am hard to impress) with the results we have seen with JR. He’s improved so very much since this journey with the school began. The staff is very dedicated to these kids and they do an excellent job in educating them. I thank God every day for Vista and its staff.
For anyone reading this if you live in Pennsylvania or are considering a move to PA because of our autism services by all means check out the Vista school. Their internet address is: http://www.thevistaschool.com.