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School expands on mission to aid autistic children

Teacher Jessica Thompson instructs students during a preschool class at the New England Center for Children. Teacher Jessica Thompson instructs students during a preschool class at the New England Center for Children. (PHOTOS BY BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

When a particular student acts up, Amy Giles sometimes places the girl in a tiny, windowless room and closes the door. Then Giles stands outside the closet-like chamber, waiting patiently until the child settles down.

If it were another child, it might seem cruel. But Giles, a Westborough resident, is probably that student's best chance for a quality education. Giles teaches at the New England Center for Children on Route 9 in Southborough, a school that is at the forefront of educating children with autism, a neurological disorder that dramatically inhibits the way a child learns.

"We don't want to be the biggest program for autism," said Judy Cunniff Serio, director of administration. "We want to be the best."

The center, founded in 1975, is in the midst of a major expansion.

In November, the center plans to open its $5.5 million, 11,400-square-foot Therapeutic Aquatic Center, which includes an Olympic-sized swimming pool and conference rooms for staff and students.

And in June, the center signed an agreement with health authorities in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to start a program for autistic children. Teachers from the center will start their first lessons with 48 students at the end of the year, and over the next 10 years, the center hopes to expand the program to include 100 staff members, with half coming directly from the Southborough campus.

The school is distinguished by its emphasis on both educating students and conducting research. While she works as a teacher, for instance, Giles is also earning credit for a master's degree from Northeastern University in applied behavior analysis -- a term that covers the study of how one's surroundings contribute to behavior change. The discipline is the center's specialty, according to Cunniff Serio. The center also offers degrees through Framingham State College and Simmons College.

"You become a really skilled clinician as a teacher with all those experiences," said Sally Roberts of Watertown, a former teacher at the center who now works there as a psychologist.

So when Giles sends her student into that tiny room, it isn't punishment. It's a treatment called "removal for reinforcement" for a girl with autism who exploded because it was time to move from one lesson to the next. Without the serenity of the room, Giles's student might never regain the focus she needs to continue a day of learning.

"She has a little difficulty with transitions," Giles said, not without compassion.

Children grow mentally by watching their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and other people around them, Cunniff Serio said. Healthy kids do it every day, as any parents watching their child learn how to take their first steps, play catch, or speak a foreign language can attest.

For autistic kids, life isn't that simple, Cunniff Serio said. They don't glean lessons from their environment. They don't necessarily notice how their big brother sits quietly at meals. They often can't focus on the conversations going on around them.

Most autistic children start showing signs of lacking the tools to develop normally by 18 months, she said. Forty percent of autistic children do not speak, for example. Many shirk from meeting other people's eyes. But some may appear normal and are able to operate normally or might even excel in other ways.

Cunniff Serio remembered one autistic student who had an extraordinary ability to calculate dates in the past and future, for example.

"He would say, 'Judy, when were you born?' and I would tell him and he would say 'In 1999, your birthday is on a Tuesday,' " Cunniff Serio said. "But he couldn't tie his shoes."

Some autistic children might need to be taught how to use a computer that allows them to touch symbols that signify when they want to eat or take a rest. Or they might need to sit one-on-one with a teacher in a cubicle that shuts out distractions, allowing them to focus on simple lessons, like drawing circles or other shapes.

"Just teaching a kid to make eye contact with you and say your name is huge," said Roberts. "Those are big successes."

Parents whose children attend the center said its atmosphere makes the best of a hard situation for families.

"From the minute we walked in the door and saw the preschool and the teachers training the kids with one-to-one teaching, we wanted the boys to go there. We knew it in our hearts right then and there," said Angela Masiello, a Boylston resident whose 11-year-old twins have attended the school for almost nine years.

If the boys hadn't attended the center, Masiello said, she believes they'd be in far worse shape. The boys cannot speak, for example, but they express themselves via the special computer touch pad.

"I think right now they'd still be locked into their own world, not looking at people with eye contact, not wanting to communicate," she said.

It's not easy work. The center employs 450 teachers and 250 staff members who oversee 235 students, some on a 24-hour basis in 17 group homes throughout Boston's suburbs. The cost of educating one student runs from $57,000 to $285,000 a year, depending on the severity of the child's condition. The center's budget is $40 million a year, said CFO Michael Downey.

Students from as far away as Kuwait, Qatar, and Bermuda attend the school, but the vast majority of students are local.