Being a parent of a child with special needs can be a very overwhelming experience. Janis Lammers will never forget the day her daughter, Kristina, was first diagnosed with autism at age seven. Shortly thereafter, her son Matthew was also diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum at the age of four. One of the biggest questions Janis and her husband, Kurt, had was how could they best help their kids succeed in school and in life?
After receiving his diagnosis, Matthew was placed in an early intervention program and initially, he did well. He quickly became more verbal and was eager to learn, enjoying his teachers and peers.
“We were hopeful things would continue to go well for him, but starting around the fourth grade, the situation changed,” Lammers said.
As the classroom size increased, Matthew’s anxiety grew in response. He spent all of his energy trying to cope and started to fall behind in his school work. He struggled to make friends, and Lammers watched sadly as he paced around alone on the playground at recess.
“The final straw was when his anxiety started to affect his health. A nurse told us that the stomach problems and headaches he was experiencing were stress related and on the scale of what an adult would experience,” Lammers said. That same week Matthew told his mom he felt like the worst kid in his class. “It broke my heart to hear this, and we knew we had to do something,” she recalls.
The Lammers explored other options with the school district, but it seemed their only choices were continuing with the resource room or online schooling.
“We knew that in order for our kids to succeed, we’d have to find an alternative. Whether that would be homeschooling or private school, we didn’t know yet.”
Luckily, they didn’t have to look for too long. Through a local support group, they learned about a school called Newton Learning Center (NLC), a private school for high-functioning students on the Autism Spectrum located in San Jose, Calif. The Lammers met with the executive director at the time, LE Boydston, and toured the San Jose campus. Upon agreeing that Newton would be the perfect fit for their son, they rallied with other parents of students with autism diagnoses and pioneered for the opportunity for current Site Director, RJ Larrieu, to open a Newton campus in Reno.
Newton Learning Center of Northern Nevada opened on September 8, 2008. After he visited the school for a day, Matthew told his mom that he wanted to stay.
“Within a short amount of time, we noticed the number of doctor visits drastically dropped off. Our son started to feel good about himself and eagerly told us what he had learned in school each day. As his confidence and trust grew, he started interacting with his peers and making friends. We started to experience more ups than downs, and we knew we were in the right place,” she said.
Matthew was the first of the Lammers family to make the transition, at the age of ten.
Shortly after she was diagnosed, Kristina was placed in a mainstream classroom setting, with speech and occupational therapy support. At first, she seemed to be making progress. However, over the years, keeping her in this type of educational setting became more of a struggle for her and it took its toll. Because of her extreme anxiety levels and sensory issues, she expended a tremendous amount of energy holding herself together at school and would fall apart every evening at home.
According to Lammers, the turning point happened for Kristina in the ninth grade.
“She started falling behind in her school work and spent most of her time in the resource room trying to catch up. She became angry and non-communicative, sliding into a depression and experiencing panic attacks,” she said, adding that she and her husband, Kurt, were terrified and knew they had to act.
That year, Kristina began attending NLC. The first change Lammers noticed was how Kristina became much calmer, and her panic attacks lessened.
“As her anxiety dropped, she began to progress, both academically and socially, and developed a confidence we hadn’t seen in years. She has expressed to us many times that she would not be where she is without the help of the teachers at NLC and her experiences there,” Janis said.
The educational and life strategies the staff at NLC taught the Lammers children have been invaluable to them. With small classroom sizes and dedicated and caring teachers who focus on the individual academic and social needs of each student, Lammers feels Newton has provided a safe and successful environment for her kids.
“Through their encouragement, my kids have been able to achieve things in life that I hadn’t thought possible. Kristina is successfully working toward a degree and certificate at TMCC and maintaining outstanding grades. Matthew is getting ready to graduate from Newton this year and is successfully holding down a part-time job. Inspired by the staff at NLC, his goal is to go into teaching and help others as his teachers have helped him,” she said.
Over time, Lammers learned that each child is unique, and there are many different ways to learn. She encourages other parents to overcome their fears and explore the best option for their child to excel and reach his or her full potential.
Note: The Lammers received an Opportunity Scholarship to help offset the cost of two special needs children in a private school setting. The Opportunity Scholarship allows students to receive a scholarship to attend a private school, pending family household eligibility. Students can receive a scholarship up to $8,132 for K-12 private school tuition and fees.