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.
As to what causes it, some of [the increase in reported cases] is clearly better diagnosis and more awareness, but it can’t be all that. Some of it is probably environmental plus genetics. There clearly is some genetic link, in my opinion, just watching it go through families. I’m not a doctor or a researcher, but I’ve read just about everything I can find out there, and that seems to be where folks are leaning, that it’s a genetic component plus something else.
Do you think immunizations have anything to do with it?
No. And even if they did, even knowing what I know now and the consequence of that, the risk of not being immunized is even greater than the risk of immunization.
You have twin boys, but only one has been diagnosed with ASD. Twins usually have their own way of communicating. Do they have their own way of communicating?
They do. Collin has always taken care of Robert and, frankly, probably contributed to the delay in Robert’s diagnosis. When they were small, people would talk to Collin and he would say, “This is Robert.” And if you were to ask Robert a question, Collin would answer. The converse of that is when they were learning their colors, someone would ask Collin what color something was and Collin would turn around and ask Robert because why would he need to learn it if Robert knew?
Robert was verbal, but he was very emotionally stilted. He was throwing tantrums well beyond when most kids threw tantrums. Now we realize it was noises and smells and movements. We didn’t know.
It really came to a head when we separated them in kindergarten because Robert didn’t have his brother to calm him and help him through the socializing aspects of the day. He was in a large class of 23 kids and one teacher, and he couldn’t handle it. He just couldn’t handle it. That’s what ultimately led to us getting him tested.
How will Tapestry address the challenge of teaching social skills?
Part of our goal at Tapestry is to build social skills training throughout the day, not just pull it out for 30 minutes a day. Create internships as kids matriculate or create a bridge between high school and college or a bridge between high school and the workforce, whatever is appropriate to help facilitate these kids becoming functioning members of society.
Probably the hardest thing for us is we have to be small. We know that we’re not going to be able to service all the kids, so our goal is really to create a model that can be replicated.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced starting this charter school?
Well, there have been many. DeKalb has been in sort of a state of flux for a while. We spent a lot of time working on the relationship of the old (school) board and then shortly before our petition was due, the board changed. I’m not commenting on whether that was good or bad, but it did, so we didn’t really have the time to build the relationship with the new board.
If you had to sum up this whole experience, and I know you’re still in it, what’s your take-away?
The hardest thing for me is when something goes south, or isn’t working, it’s obviously hard to get motivated again. It would have been very easy to say, “You know what, I’ll find some way to send my kids to private school,” but what I’ve learned through this process is how many desperate parents there are. There are just desperate parents.
It really is quite sad that things seem to fall apart in middle school. It’s a hard time in life for any kid, but you add in there the inability to move from class to class without a panic attack and the inability to read social cues, and you combine puberty. How horrific could that be? That has been the biggest motivator.
How do you not do this? Why does this not exist already?