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The Autism Clause

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This routine, which carries on most afternoons, year-round, can look like babysitting, and some of it is. But the deeper agenda is behavior modification. Jake’s parents—his mother is a nursery-school teacher with a master’s in early-childhood development, and his father owns a jewelry shop and a wine store on Madison Avenue—say McCarton’s “Applied Behavioral Analysis” therapy is the reason the family recently was able to take their first weekend trip since he was a toddler.

Jake can speak in brief sentences now, if you prompt him the right way. He shines with a charming if spacey smile; Maggie says he’s no longer the withdrawn creature who used to stand by the slide in the playground because he couldn’t figure out how to climb up. “In the past two years,” says Robert Eigen, “our life has changed.”

Jake’s transformation has cost $130,000 a year, and his parents have successfully recouped all of it from the city, Maggie Eigen says.

“What McCarton is striving for, a home program integrated with a school program, is a wonderful gold standard,” says Dr. David Salsberg, supervisor of pediatric psychology at Rusk Institute at the NYU Medical Center and an expert witness in tuition lawsuits against the city. “The downside is that this is a tremendous expense.”

Jake’s six-figure schooling may be harder to come by in the future. Last year, Chancellor Klein, who complains that too many lawsuits result in private-school placements, hired ten lawyers specifically to fight special-education claims. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that parents have to prove the public system has failed before they can go to private school. Koffler is certain that those reforms won’t affect him much. “If you do the right thing,” he declares, “why would you worry?”

As evidence of progress in public schools, Klein also points to 46 new prekindergarten autism classes and the year-old New York Center for Autism Charter School, the city’s first such program, on East 101st Street. There, teachers deploy behavioral drills, hundreds of them every week, to train seventeen autistic children to stop flapping their hands, or ask to go to the bathroom instead of in a diaper. They get rewards—some pretzels, some Gameboy time—for new tasks mastered. The school gets $62,000 a year in public funding per student and raises an additional $20,000 each from charity benefits like Jon Stewart’s recent “Night of Too Many Stars” at the Beacon Theater, which attracted comics from Sacha Baron Cohen to Steve Carell.

“The idea that parents should sue—it’s going to break the bank,” says the charter school’s co-founder Ilene Lainer, a labor-management lawyer from the Upper West Side and mother of an autistic 9-year-old. “The answer is to create programs that are publicly run.” Lainer knows the alternative all too well. Up until her son Ari landed a spot in a state-approved private school this year (he lost the lottery for a place in Lainer’s school), he spent five years alternating between her living room and a private academy in New Jersey. How did Lainer pay? She sued the city.


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