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Visitors travel from Russia to study area autism programs

Rhonda Becker uses flashcards to teach words. Rhonda Becker uses flashcards to teach words.

Visitors traveled a long way to learn about how teachers and clinicians here treat children with autism.

The Friendship Force of Western North Carolina hosted six visitors from Russia April 12-20. The delegates are all involved in teaching or treating children with autism in Voronezh, a city of about 1 million people.
They spent one morning last week at the St. Gerard House and Grotto School observing and asking questions about the innovative and widely respected treatment program for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Caroline Long, a mother of two autistic children, founded the Gerard House out of frustration with other programs' shortcomings. She led a tour of the Grotto preschool, known as one of the top autism treatment facilities in North Carolina. It is superior to what public programs can offer because of its extraordinary teacher-student ratio of one to one.
"It costs us about $40,000 per year per child," said Rachel Cushing, the clinical director. "Actually that's relatively cheap and the reason is we have people that are willing to work for less than they'd make elsewhere. They're learning a lot, so that's where their motivation comes in, but they're not the highest paid."
Long and board members spend a lot of time fundraising. A benefit luncheon for St. Gerard House, the third annual "First Words of Hope," was held Wednesday at the Conference Hall at Blue Ridge Community College.
"We have a long waiting list for our scholarship assistance," Cushing told the Friendship Force visitors. "Currently we have two open positions (for paying families). If you can pay full tuition you can come right in away or as soon as we get somebody hired and trained."
Long said, "We have teams of parents that are raising funds nonstop."

'Really good with children'
The commitment and patience of the teachers, most of them young and just out of college, is plain from just a brief visit. The training based on a therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis, which is highly individualistic and requires intuition and heart as much as book learning.
"Sometimes they're just really good with children," Long said. "It's much easier to teach ABA than it is to teach them how to be good with children."
Because the Gerard House is affiliated with Immaculata, children at Grotto begin to socialize with other children at an early age.
"We get them ready to go into the mainstream by integrating them into the Immaculata classroom," Long said. "This program is very unique in North Carolina."

The Russian delegates — which included a neurologist, a child psychiatrist, a speech pathologist and teacher — had a packed schedule. They visited an autism parents support group, an exceptional children's classroom at Hendersonville Elementary School, the Irene Wortham Center in Asheville, Mission Children's Hospital, the Talisman Academy Residential High School for ASD in Hendersonville and other child development programs focusing on autism. Former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, a strong supporter of the Open World Leadership Center, which funds the visits, hosted the delegates at his Brevard home.
The delegates said through an interpreter that the visit was rewarding.
"It has validated what we're doing, we're doing the right thing, we're on the right path, we're going in the right direction," said Nina Voytsehovskaya, a speech pathologist.
Bill Wilkes and his wife, Judy, served as directors of the Friendship Force visit.
"I have to write a report for Open World for every one of these," he said. "This has been one of the easiest reports to write because so many good things happened. The delegates I think learned a whole lot that they might use in the future."
A reporter asked the Russian autism specialists whether they had found that children with autism are the same across the world. When translator Irina Bronstein LaRose posed the question, a lively chatter erupted.
"No, actually all autistic children are different," she said. "But the methods of working with autistic children are similar."
Long, the director and mom of two children with autism, chuckled at the story.
"We have a saying," she said. "When you meet one child with autism you've met one child with autism."