Twelve years ago, Kelly Weaver, a successful Mary Kay consultant in northern Illinois, received the news that her two-year-old daughter, Gillian, was severely autistic. Frightened and unsure of what the diagnosis meant, Weaver started researching the then seemingly rare syndrome.
“Gillian was part of the front load of this pandemic that we’re experiencing now,” Weaver says. “Back then, when I Googled it, everything said I was a refrigerator mother, that I was not warm and fuzzy, that she was suffering from separation disorder. It was a 1950s understanding of autism—and so, so bleak. Institutions.” She continues after a pause. “That wasn’t OK by me. I didn’t see that for my daughter.”
Today, 14-year-old Gillian is thriving at Alexander Leigh Center for Autism (ALCA), the therapeutic day school and developmental learning center her mother cofounded in 2007. Despite huge speech delays and sensory development issues, with the help of a loving staff and many one-on-one sessions, she has learned how to communicate her needs, she is reading and writing, and she is even learning how to type. In fact, Gillian’s official diagnosis has been downgraded from severe to moderate. “I always tell people to trust their parent gut,” Weaver says. “Never give up, and do whatever it takes to provide the way for your child.”
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Weaver didn’t set out to create her own school; back in the early 2000s, she simply was trying to educate herself on how to help her daughter. She took Gillian to speech therapy, developmental playgroups, and biomedical intervention groups all over the Chicago area. She sat through every session and class so that she could continue working with her small daughter at home. When Gillian was three, Weaver placed her in a public preschool. Quickly, however, she discovered that the school was just not equipped to handle Gillian’s special needs. “They didn’t know how to teach her,” Weaver says. “I am no way shape or form anti-public school, but I am pro teaching autistic kids the way they need to learn. They need different types of intervention.”
She started homeschooling Gillian, hiring experts to help her, to the tune of $40,000 to $60,000 a year. In 2004, Weaver teamed up with another mom, Dorie Hoevel, who was homeschooling her own autistic son, Zachary. Together, they decided to create a school to help other parents in the area who were struggling with how to educate their autistic children. “By offering a school, other parents wouldn’t have to hire, fire and train [in-home educators],” Weaver says. “That would all be done for them.”
Children grow up, and you have to kick them out of the nest. Special needs children are no different—we just have to teach them so much more.
After securing funding, forming a nonprofit, developing a board and getting Illinois State Board of Education approval, the school was ready to open in 2007. They added three more children the next year, and today there are 27 children between the ages of 3 and 15 attending ALCA (which was named after Gillian “Leigh” and Zachary “Alexander”), which has recently moved into a new 13,000-square-foot facility. Some parents travel over an hour each way every day so that their children can attend the school, where the staff of five teachers and dozens of coaches, therapists, and other experts intimately understands the special academic, social, and developmental issues children with autism face in an educational environment.
One in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism, so the demand for specialized education is high. The non-public ALCA works in partnership with districts to provide appropriate educational programming for students with autism in a highly, intensive therapeutic setting. As ALCA focuses on children with autism, their programs are designed to fit the individual needs of each child. “[My son] Luke was in the early intervention program at the local public school,” says Tom Bardwil, father of an eight-year-old who has been attending ALCA for two years. “The school district is well respected and staffed, but Luke was in need of individualized attention. Alexander Leigh was one of three schools that we were able to visit for outplacement. Through one-on-one attention combined with a variety of therapies throughout the school day, Luke has shown progress in life skills, pre-academic skills (he still has a long way to go), and overall improved social behaviors.”
Weaver is proud of her work, but she says she only fought for what all parents desire for their kids. “Your mission in life is to make your children successful adults,” she says. “I want my daughter to have the best quality of life. Children grow up, and you have to kick them out of the nest. Special needs children are no different—we just have to teach them so much more. We [sometimes] have to take things into our own hands to provide for them.”
If you want to support children with autism, help this dedicated teacher get the sensory tools she needs for her students!
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.