As you may know, April is Autism Awareness Month, and while there are many resources in the Memphis area for children and families living on the autism spectrum, the ANGEL Program at Holy Rosary School holds a place that is uniquely its own. With its model of providing a year-round, individualized education in an inclusive classroom setting, the ANGEL Program is the only one of its kind in the region. The ANGEL Program serves a need in the Memphis autism community that is often overlooked by other programs in the area. The children and families that come to the ANGEL Program find themselves in somewhat of a no-man’s land: they do not fit into a mainstream classroom of a school without assistance, and their needs do not line up with special education classrooms or many of the specialized schools in the area designed for children with special needs. These kids have great potential to grow into full independence in the classroom behaviorally and academically given the right support through the Program’s early intervention. The 4:1 student-teacher ratio is critical in providing that elevated level of support. In addition to ANGEL students receiving unparalleled support in the classroom, they also receive individualized therapies based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles that are customized to their areas of need.
I can speak with confidence about the efficacy of the ANGEL Program as my son, Jim, has been a student there since January 2016. We came to the Program in true crisis mode when my son was 5 years old and in 4K. We had just pulled him out of school after struggling with language and sensory symptoms that had exploded earlier that year. We desperately needed help and were told to run (don’t walk) to the ANGEL Program. We were all frustrated, confused, and scared, but the ANGEL director was so reassuring and offered a clear approach to help us. Within weeks of starting the Program, there was a noticeable change in him; he was happy, relaxed, and excited to go to school. We could sense that he felt understood, heard, and accepted. He knew he was in a safe place where people wanted to help him, and we felt like we were getting our son back.
Over these years, he has accomplished numerous goals with the help of the ANGEL Program. While challenges remain, he is flourishing in a way that I know would not have been possible without the help of the incredible ANGEL therapists and Holy Rosary teachers that we have encountered along the way. Although we have experienced many ups and downs in our autism journey, the ANGEL Program has walked that walk with us and truly made a life-changing difference for my son and our family.
Students in the ANGEL Program are immediately integrated into the mainstream classroom and work side-by-side with their typical peers. During the school day, they often have pull-outs to target specific skills and needs; however, over time, the classroom time becomes a greater percentage of their day. By having regular interaction with their peers, these children learn increased independence in the classroom as they see appropriate classroom behavior modeled day in and day out. For many autistic children, social and play skills are difficult, and the benefit of having typical peers to model and interact with them to practice those skills is absolutely invaluable. Children on the autism spectrum crave the same love, compassion, and acceptance as any other child, and to have that experience with their peers builds a solid foundation of confidence for these kids to flourish and grow.
The ANGEL Program was born out of a desire within the Holy Rosary community to include all children in classroom education, regardless of their learning ability. This mission is one that runs throughout the school and bolsters the efforts of everyone working with the Program. While the ABA therapy and individualized plans for ANGEL students are of critical importance, the loving and supportive community is the lifeblood of students’ growth and successes within the Program. Children and families coming into the Program have often just begun their journey with autism. Many are scared, uncertain, and confused about their symptoms and struggles. Many families lack the expertise, tools and resources needed to combat the effects of autism. While the ANGEL staff can provide reassurance and guidance to help families feel like they have a plan, the community of supportive teachers and other ANGEL families help the children and families to know they are in a loving and safe place that cares for them. The importance of this support mechanism cannot be understated.
Jim is set to ‘graduate’ from the Program in the coming months. There is no ceremony, no mortar board cap, cords or gowns – just a quiet segue into being a regular student with his peers who have been there all along the way. I think Jim said it best at Thanksgiving this past fall when we stood in a circle with our family and each said one thing for which we were thankful. When it came around to Jim, he said, “I am thankful for everyone who has helped me.” The Memphis community should be proud of and thankful for the ANGEL Program and Holy Rosary School.
Originally from Louisiana, Betsy McLean relocated back to Memphis 10 years ago after living in Jackson, MS and Shreveport, LA for a number of years. Rhodes College originally brought her to the Bluff City, and ever since her college days, Memphis has felt like home. Betsy is a Managing Director in Institutional Fixed Income for Raymond James, and she has practiced in the field of fixed income for more than 20 years. She has been married to her husband Kenneth for nearly 22 years and they share four amazing children: John(11), Jim (10), Michael (4), and Maggie (2). Betsy is active in her Catholic faith and works in the Children’s Liturgy ministry. She has always loved children, but having a child on the autism spectrum transformed her from a general child fan to an enthusiastic special needs advocate. She loves to encourage and support families and children living on the autism spectrum and is a persistent advocate for early intervention.