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School for kids with high-functioning autism expands to new location

Kristine Sorensen
June13/ 2018

One in 59 kids is on the autism spectrum — a number that’s increased tenfold in the last 40 years.  This has led to a need for schools to teach autistic children, especially those who are high-functioning.

Many students with high-functioning autism start out at traditional schools, but often times, it doesn’t work out and they drop out.  The Watson Institute just opened a second location to meet the need for a place for these kids to learn.  For 101 years, the Watson Institute has been helping children with special needs.

“What is one thing you wished other people knew about you?” one of the students asks another student in a class session on social skills.  Helping kids learn social skills, as well as academics, is the goal of the Watson Institute Social Center for Academic Achievement, or “WISCA”.

With 55 students in their location in Sharpsburg and the new location in South Fayette, from kindergarten through age 21, each child has unique needs and abilities. The school uses cyber school with in-person teachers.

WISCA program coordinator Marica Laus says of the variety of skills her students have, “I had one student who, in seventh grade, took honors biology at his home high school.  So we have students like that but also have students who we need to help focus more on work skills so when they graduate from us, they can go (directly) into the work field.”

Parent Diana Prowitt, whose son Aiden is a student in the WISCA program, says, “He started out in our neighborhood school, and it didn’t go well.”  That’s the experience of many students in the WISCA program.  At traditional schools, all teachers are not trained to work with autistic children, and the environment can be overwhelming.   That’s why at Watson, it’s quiet. Students have their own private cubicles that they can decorate to make them feel at home.

Diana Prowitt says WISCA has helped Aiden better learn to identify social cues.  “If someone is upset, your face takes on emotion.  When he was little he would say, ‘Why does your face look like that?'”

Laus explains why traditional school can be so disorienting to a child with high-functioning autism. “When they’re taking time to process those social interactions,” she says, “everyone else is moving on, and they feel lost. ‘What just happened”‘ is what they’re thinking.

Student George Scher loves video and virtual reality.  At Watson, he can learn academics, as well as prepare for college or a job with on-the-job experience at places like Eat-n-Park, Big Lots and Shop-n-Save.  His father, Alan Scher, says, “Hope is what we cling to. Programs like this, schools like this, companies that hire people with autism… it gives you hope for the future.”

The public school district where each of the kids at Watson would go pays for their education at Watson, so that makes it affordable for families.

 The Watson Institute is one of several schools in the region that work with children who have autism.  Some of the others include Pace School and Pressley Ridge.

Kristine Sorensen

I am proud to work at KDKA-TV -- anchoring the news, hosting Pittsburgh Today Live and doing special reports. I am married to KDKA reporter Marty Griffin and we have 3 children. I first moved to Pittsburgh in 1999 but I’ve lived in Dallas, Johnson City, Tenn., Chicago, Williamsburg, Va., Milwaukee and Winter Park, Fla. Pittsburgh is now the place I call home.

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