being different

Image:   Reflections magazine    Originally published   i n  Reflections , 2011

Image: Reflections magazine
Originally published in Reflections, 2011


“I don’t like the word ‘autistic,’ ” said Nancy Gordon. “You’re not ‘cancer.’ You’re so much more than just your autism. You will never hear me refer to any kid as autistic. It just drives me crazy.”

Nancy is a mother of two. She has a 12-year-old daughter, Emily, who she says is a phenomenal big sister with a kind heart, and a 10-year-old son, Josh. Josh loves to swim. He plays basketball, too. You may even hear him singing show tunes. He’s generally a very happy kid. Josh also has autism. “When Josh got his diagnosis, that became a full-time job in and of itself,” said Nancy. But it would be a few years before those words manifested into a profession Nancy had never considered.

She studied at the University of Michigan, where she loved business and English. From there, she attended law school at the University of Denver.

Now, Nancy is educating educators on how it could be. In fall 2007, Nancy and her husband Matt, along with Herman and Samia Mohazzabfar and Erin and Kirk Brewer, who also have children with autism, opened the Academy of Precision Learning. “This is a model for how it should be,” said Nancy.

The inspiration came after the Gordons attended the Experimental Education Unit at the University of Washington. Josh was a typically developing baby up until 18 months when he started to lose some language. “I was home with him all the time, and I was like ‘no, it’s only because we ask him a hundred times a day, what does a cow say, what does a sheep say? You know, he doesn’t want to do it anymore,’ ” said Nancy. “He stopped responding to his name, and then we ended up getting a diagnosis. It was literally the worst day of my life. At least at that moment you think it is.”

At the EEU, the children had instructors trained in teaching kids with disabilities. “You name it and every disability was there, mixed among the typically developing kids,” said Nancy. “You kind of go there and are like, ‘look at that kid, look at that kid,’ then two weeks into it, they’re like every other kid. You learn to see the child, not the disability, which is what we want for all of our kids.”

But the comforts of an inclusionbased school ended at kindergarten, the cap at EEU. Josh went to public school for a while, where Nancy notes it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it wasn’t enough. He had potential and he needed the right attention to tap into it, and he needed a tighter community. “Josh had friends in public school, but he was like the pet puppy of class with people taking turns to have lunch with him. After third grade, kids are looking out for their own well being, which is understandable, but your kid sort of gets left in the dust. They’re not taking your kid around like they used to,” said Nancy.

So the Gordons and the other families decided to create a school based around the needs of their families. APL started with just four students in the basement of a synagogue on Mercer Islandit took only 10 months to make the idea a reality.

Nancy says that by second grade, his first full year as an APL student, Josh experienced a 100-percent positive change in performance and in his outlook toward school, largely in part to the school’s standard of personalized education, no matter what.

“We’re focused on making our school as desirable as all the other private schools. We want to be looked at, first and foremost, as a really fine, independent, private school, not just a school for kids with autism,” said Nancy.

APL currently teaches K-8 with plans for adding high school in 2013-14, but just one grade at a time. “We don’t want to grow too big, too fast,” said Nancy. In a span of one year, APL more than doubled in students, growing from 19 to 45 with 20 more joining in the 2011-12 school year. “The dream has been realized,” said Nancy. From four students in a basement to creating a school with a wait list, it’s safe to say the founding families reached their goal.

And now other parents get the chance to reap the benefits.

APL creates a personalized education plan for each and every student, catering to his or her strengths. “I can’t believe what we’ve created. There is no school like ours. We’re focused on academics, and our kids are smart,” said Nancy. No matter a child’s level, APL has a plan.

New students are sorted into one of four levels. A level four child may need some extra one-on-one attention and a personal teacher; a level three may receive a shared teacher; a two may not have a personal teacher, but will still get a certain level of extra attention and a one is a typically developing child. “We have a wide mix of kids at our school,” said Nancy, “more than one third are typically developing with no issues and no diagnosis, then we have some kids who have no diagnosis, but for whatever reason, just aren’t cutting it in mainstream class and then we have kids who are on the autism spectrum.”

With only 16 students per classroom, personalized attention isn’t a luxury; it’s a requirement. And APL is recognized as part of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools.

Because the classes are so small, APL has managed to create a community of friends among all the children. “All those dreams you have for your kid to be included, they get them in our school,” said Nancy. Inclusion comes in the form of a running club that started this fall to events like drama productions. The school partners with Broadway Bound, which allows students to learn and perform musical numbers as a group. “Last year, we did the ‘Lion King’. For the whole summer, Josh was singing those songs. For a parent who was worried when their kid was 2 years old if he was ever going to talk again, it’s amazing,” said Nancy.

She hopes the school continues to grow and is thankful for everything it has done for students and parents in the short time it’s been around. She’s excited about the tolerance and acceptance that’s been created among the typically developing children and those with autism.

“All of our kids have gifts to bring to the world. My hope for my own son is that people realize his gift beyond his disability and the impulsive, quirky things he might donot label him as autistic, but label him as a great kid.”

But it’s not always easy. “On a good day, it’s like the sky’s the limit, and on a bad day, you’ll be like, ‘oh, boy. How old can I live to be?'” laughed Nancy.

Like any other aspect of life, it’s all about taking it as it comes. Besides, being different is so much more fun than blending in.

“It’s not so much Josh we should worry about because we should all be so happy,” said Nancy. “It’s the other people in this world who are not so kind, who are not so tolerant of anybody who is different. At APL, we are building good citizens and good people.”