It’s been a lifelong dream of Kami Cothrun to help children with autism.
After opening a habilitation and respite agency, Cothrun started listening to parents about how they wished schools would offer more services for children with special needs.
Putting all her background to work, she opened “Pieceful Solutions” in Mesa — a school for high- and low-functioning children with autism in 2008.
The school is gets its name, Cothrun said, from the universal symbol of autism — a puzzle piece. Cothrun explains that because autism is so complex and each child is so different, solving each scenario is like solving a puzzle.
Cothrun has a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing sciences, and also a master’s degree in special education. She went on to teach in public schools before opening her respite agency. But after hearing what other parents were saying about the need for better services she knew she could do something.
According to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 60 children in Arizona are diagnosed with Autism. Even with a statistical need, keeping the school in business wasn’t easy for Cothrun.
She had to sacrifice family time with her three children, spend much of her time awake running the school, and ultimately take a mortage on her home in order to keep the school operating. Her husband, Ryan Cothrun, will eventually leave his job as a project manager for a general contracting company in order to help her run the transportation and operations of the school, she said.
The school opened in 2008; with the economy flat, which made things all the more difficult. At the beginning only six children were part of the school. Today, the school boasts an alumni base of 65 children, with about 30 set to enroll next year, she said.
A private school with tuition set at $23,000 each year, the school includes instruction from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Cothrun works with families in order to help them attend even if the tuition funding is difficult.
Apart from private pay, families can applied for the Empowerment Scholarship Account which purpose is to help children with special needs get extra educational services, she noted. This is the second year the school has used the scholarship and has allowed enrollment to increase accordingly. Cothrun also plans to expand the school into another building in order to be able to accommodate a new influx of students.
In addition to focusing on academy skills, the school addresses language and social skills which autism children struggle the most, and includes such subject matter as reading, writing, math, social skills, yoga, music therapy, karate, speech therapy, daily living skills and going out in the community.
Going out in the community consist of taking the children to public places such as grocery stores and restaurants to teach them how to behave and be able to communicate what they want.
Cothrun said that kids get excited when they go to trips because they don’t always get that opportunity at home. She said that, in some cases, it’s because many parents are afraid to take them out because they are afraid of how they may behave.
“All kids have potential, the reason I love kids with autism is because they are smart and you have to be creative in reaching them and be able to teach them,” Cothrun said.
Kathy Graves, a teacher with 14-years of experience, motivates her students with a highly-structured program that uses plenty of visual aids in her lessons. The children are taught what the routine is, what is expected of them, and what will happen next, she said. Like the rest of the school, Graves works one-on-one with each child to reach their individual goals.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all classroom, not all (autistic students) are the same, is not like in a public school where they teach broadly,” Graves said.
Cothrun said that their goal is for their students to be able to graduate and live lives as productive individuals in college or the workplace.
Cothrun goes on to say that children with autism have the abilty to be great employees because they take their duties seriously and put all their effort into accomplishing them.
According to a 2010 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 21 percent of all adults with disabilities participate in the workforce compared with the 69 percent of adults without disabilities.
Cami Lichtsinn, a parent and a worker at the school, found out about Pieceful Solutions online two years ago. She saw her child was not getting the help he needed in the public school system. As he got older, Lichtsinn started to notice his academic and social skills were deteriorating so she enrolled his son in August 2011.
Now a sixth grader, Litchtsinn’s son has become more social and has started taking Taekwondo — thank to the karate instruction at the school.
He is doing well on his academics and can focus more on staying on task. Lichtsinn who is from Maricopa, makes the nearly-hour drive everyday to school.
“There isn’t a distance I wouldn’t drive for his education,” Lichtsinn said.
4909 E. Brown Road, Mesa
Abel, a senior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.