Crystal Lake school gives specialized education to students with autism

Nonprofit day school looking to expand services for autistic students

CRYSTAL LAKE – At Alexander Leigh Center for Autism in Crystal Lake, co-founder Kelly Weaver wants to see students with autism go as far as they possibly can. 

The nonprofit therapeutic day school sees students from 3 to 21 years old year round, and has a staff-to-student ratio of 76 to 37 to provide an individualized education plan for each student, Weaver said.

As the population of people with autism grows, Weaver is looking to expand the center’s space and the programs it offers.

Weaver opened the school with friend Dorie Hoevel in 2007, when both parents wondered how they could best serve their children with autism. Weaver’s daughter, 17-year-old Gillian Weaver, graduated from the school’s high school program this year and will be moving on to the recently certified transitional program for 18- to 21-year-olds.

“I feel like we’re throwing at her, and at every other student that’s here, throwing everything that we can at them with all of our levels of expertise and the people that we employ. … And so being able to get the people here that are right, I feel that we’re giving the kids the best shot,” Kelly Weaver said. 

Students learn in small classrooms and also pick up life skills from daily lessons, including working in the school’s store, making and cleaning up their own lunch and doing laundry, Kelly Weaver said. The school only serves students with autism, and they can live in McHenry County or surrounding areas, she said.

For Suzanne Schwantje of Huntley, finding the center was life-changing for her family and 8-year-old daughter, Claudia Schwantje. 

Claudia is mostly nonverbal, her mother said, but after starting school at Alexander Leigh Center for Autism, she started using a Nova Chat communication device.

“It just opened up a whole new world for her to be able to communicate,” Suzanne Schwantje said, adding her daughter became happier and opened up more after being at the school. 

The school also has helped shape Claudia’s behavior, her mother said. Before, if the family was in a crowded public place that was too noisy, her daughter would end up in a meltdown, but now the family can participate in more public activities.

“[Alexander Leigh Center for Autism] has just helped us tremendously,” Suzanne Schwantje said. “It’s given us the confidence and given us the tools on how to deal with some of the behaviors.”

Part of what helps is the consistency of the one-to-one teachers each child works with, she said, and the staff-to-student ratio. 

Kris Hemphill is a board certified music therapist at the school who uses music to teach other nonmusic goals, she said, such as motor, sensory, leisure and math skills. If a student walks unsteadily, she might use a metronome or strum a guitar to help create a pattern for him or her to mirror in steps, she said. 

Programs look at a student’s needs – including their education and sensory needs – and what they like, Hemphill said, and then the school continues to meet the needs of the child by continuously changing as they change. 

To keep expanding its programs, Alexander Leigh Center for Autism needs more space, however, Kelly Weaver said, and she is looking for a new building that is affordable and can hold 65 students. 

The building the school is in now, at 620 Route 31, will max out at 40 students, Kelly Weaver said, and she expects to fill those spots in the next few weeks. 

“And that hurts my heart, too, because we do good work, and there are kids that need service, and we have to start a waiting list and, you know, that’s hard,” Kelly Weaver said.

She said a new building also will give the school space to create a day program, which will give adults older than 22 a place to keep working on their skills once they’ve finished school. 

And as the adult autism population continues to grow, Kelly Weaver also aims to make sure people with autism are welcome and comfortable in the community. 

At the school, students take trips that help them make connections with local businesses so they can have internship or volunteer opportunities in the future, Kelly Weaver said. 

This year, Kelly Weaver said she’ll be traveling the country to see how other communities are addressing a growing adult autism population, and she hopes to bring that knowledge back to McHenry County. 

“I would love nothing more than for McHenry County to be on the cutting edge of autism, and so harnessing the people in the county to come together to work toward it – because everybody’s at different spaces – has been challenging,” she said. “But I think there’s a willingness, and I’m starting conversations everywhere I go and finding those people that are ready to go ahead and move forward.”

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