Mary Jo Walsh-Watson spent 20 years as a pediatric ER nurse and the past 17 as the mother of a son who is deaf and severely autistic. Between home-schooling, doctors’ visits, frequent trips to therapy and other responsibilities, “happy” was taking a backseat.
“And ‘happy’ is really important,” said Walsh-Watson, who founded the Mountaineer’s School of Autism in 2014. “As an educator and a mom and a nurse in the community, I wanted to create a school that served not only the student, but the family as well.”
Parents of children with special needs, such as autism, are often being pulled in multiple directions at once.
“One of the first things we did was to open a therapy center on site so students could get speech, occupational and ADA therapy while they’re at school,” Walsh-Watson explained. “That frees up the parent, so they no longer have to drive all over for these services. We provide a loving, safe and quality environment where the students can get their education while we strengthen the community by strengthening families to have a happier life.”
At Mountaineer’s School of Autism (MSA), there are athletics, iPads, music and Spanish classes, sign language, playground time, and endless amounts of patience and love. Students learn academics and social skills alongside speech therapy, occupational therapy, independent living skills and social skills.
While students may think they’re only playing, the educators at MSA know that students are better able to focus and perform academically after “playing” on a crash pad, carrying a weighted ball, pulling on a rope or crawling through a fabric tunnel. All of these activities are fun, engaging and provide the necessary input to help the student become more regulated.
Walsh-Watson explained that self-regulation is a cognitive process and a necessary ingredient to making learning meaningful. It is in charge of executive functioning and is intertwined with both emotional development and social development. When a person is “dysregulated,” their ability to function in a meaningful way is disrupted. It becomes difficult to learn new information, make or keep relationships and build social skills. That is why occupational therapy is such an important part of the MSA program. The necessary tools are in each classroom. Every classroom has swings, crash pads, balance boards, trampolines and a host of other equipment to help the students function at their best.
Another challenge for teachers is dyspraxia — a student’s difficulty in planning, sequencing and carrying out unfamiliar actions. To help, MSA has planned activities, goals and objectives that address this need in a challenging and playful way.
A day at the school starts with smiles in a classroom featuring modified lighting and relaxing music. Students begin with sensory activities and social skill-building conversation, then continue their day with academics, playground time, sports, occupational therapy and speech therapy. Independent living skills are worked on daily — things like tying shoes, brushing teeth and cleaning up as a team. This sense of community and teamwork builds self-confidence and trust in others.
“At Mountaineer’s, we are a family, and a family works together for the success of everyone,” Walsh-Watson explained. “We listen and guide conversations, so respect and character-building takes place. This is a place where a multitude of a child’s growth takes place. It is so much more than simply academics.”
The primary purpose of the school is to recognize the unique characteristics of each student and to apply a curriculum specifically designed to meet their individual needs. Every student’s educational portfolio is individually tailored and executed utilizing a continuous multidisciplinary approach implemented by highly trained staff and therapists. This program determines that student’s educational format, daily routine and interventions implemented to maximize educational goals.
MSA utilizes a wide variety of resources throughout the course of a day. Depending on the developmental level of the student, any number of tools may be utilized, including manipulatives, kinetic sand/theraputty, iPads, computers, textbooks, workbooks and more. MSA utilizes Abeka, Attainment and Acellus curriculums based on ability.
The school has also partnered with HCI Nursing School and Cambridge Nursing School to train the next generation of nurses on how to best interact with autistic patients.
“It’s two days a week for eight weeks, and I’m the professor,” Walsh-Watson said. “It’s wonderful to see how these future nurses engage with our students.”
Educators at the Mountaineer’s School of Autism believe that recognizing and promoting each child’s strengths will build self-confidence and allow them to flourish both academically and socially. The small student-teacher ratio, together with educators and support staff with expertise in Applied Behavior Analysis and the various principles applied in the classroom, provides each family with a wide array of choices to meet the individual needs of each student.
Another problem that families of children with autism encounter is that whenever a traditional school is having a difficult time with an autistic child, they will call the parent to come pick them up.
“They lose income and, sometimes, their jobs,” Walsh-Watson said. “It creates an economic hardship.”
Because MSA in the business of serving families and creating happiness, the school has helped three of these parents obtain their GEDs and five to become registered behavior technicians, giving them the tools that they need to provide income for their families — and jobs at Mountaineer’s.
A nonprofit organization, the school serves grades K through 12 year-round. It also offers before care, aftercare and even a summer camp.
“We’re also open on Saturdays for babysitting and therapy to give the family time to nurture relationships with other siblings or significant others,” Walsh-Watson said. “Another difficulty we noted was healthcare. Children with autism are not able to have something as simple as blood work done. So, beginning next month, we will have a Saturday lab for onsite visits.”
Mountaineer’s also offers a program for students not on the autism spectrum.
“We also understand the strain of having one child with special needs at one school and another, neurotypical, child at another. So, this past September, we opened Mountaineer’s Academy for neurotypical siblings,” Walsh-Watson said. “The children at our academy have true compassion.”
There are currently 10 children enrolled at Mountaineer’s Academy and 48 at Mountaineer’s School of Autism.
Walsh-Watson’s goals for the school are to expand the school’s current space in West Palm Beach, find a location in Boca Raton and purchase another van for transportation, particularly from the Wellington area. One hundred percent of donations stay within Palm Beach County.
“There’s no quitting,” Walsh-Watson said. “I have so much respect for families who have kids with autism. It’s one of most difficult and amazing jobs you’ll ever have. It’s both wonderful and hard at the same time. We want them to be kids and be happy. We can’t do it on our own. If everyone is to have accessibility for all the services and support they need, for both themselves and their children, we have to share resources. Everyone’s good at something, and everyone deserves to live their most happy life.”
To learn more about Mountaineer’s School of Autism, visit www.msainc.org. To support the school, contact Walsh-Watson at (561) 932-3938.