PBS to feature local school

Television documentary will highlight CHILD, autism

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

The Children’s Institute for Learning Differences (CHILD) is a name soon to be spoken within national context. This fall, the Mercer Island independent school will be featured in a National Medical Report documentary on Autism Spectrum Disorder, which has become a growing national concern.

“The incidence of autism has risen to one in 150 children, and it’s increasing at a drastic rate,” said Laurie Simons, director of admissions at CHILD.

Since opening its doors in 1977, CHILD has gained considerable repute — not only on the Island but across the state — for its unique approach to developmental therapy and education. The independent school caters to a variety of children, from those with behavioral problems to students with severe autism.

“Many of our kids have emotional issues, sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what. We have students with explosive, reactive behaviors and with attention deficit disorder. We’re doing a better job at identifying problems sooner,” Simons said.

CHILD’s role within the autistic community, according to founder and executive director Trina Westerlund, is especially important.

“There’s been a [recent] wave of children with autism. School districts are inundated with these kids, and private schools as well,” she told the Reporter in a previous article. “There aren’t enough [educational] services that are really good. They’re needed everywhere.”

The school has received a wealth of recognition, including the KCTS Golden Apple Award for excellence in education. In a Seattle Times article on CHILD published last year, the school was mentioned as “one of the best-kept secrets in the world of special education.”

But now, the word seems to be out.

Asked why she thought CHILD was chosen — along with a select few schools nation-wide — to be featured in the medical report, Westerlund could only beam.

“I believe they wanted variety, and selected our school as one of the approaches for treating kids with special needs in autism. There are three or four well-known ways to address autism, and I’m quite sure they were looking for the contrasts to add to national recognition of this as an issue,” she said.

The documentary crew arrived at the school on Aug. 7, where they spent eight hours filming and interviewing students, teachers and parents. The footage includes candid shots of the classroom environment, as well as a one-on-one interview with local neurologist Dr. Steven Glass. PBS will broadcast the documentary this fall in all 50 sates. Approximately five minutes of the show will feature CHILD.

Over the past 30 years (the institute will celebrate its birthday in October) CHILD has grown from a basement classroom to a modern establishment serving 125 students from throughout the greater Puget Sound region.

The State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction recognizes the school as one of 48 nonpublic agencies, a status that allows CHILD to enroll students from off the Island. Although many parents pay private tuition, a majority of the school’s students are funded by contracted public school districts. Annual tuition costs approximately $29,000.

One of the main reasons CHILD is so highly valued, said Westerlund, is because it invites public schools to send students who, due to the severity of their needs, require more than special education alone.

“This documentary will be amazing for our school’s awareness building. What we’ve wanted for a long time is to make certain that parents who are searching for our services find them in a timely way,” she said.

“The biggest lament we hear from families is ‘I wish I had known about you two or three years ago,’” the director added. “We’re looking at this as opening a door of awareness to the community, so people can say, ‘Oh I know a place that can help you.’”

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