When the impossible is the only right thing to do

  • Every morning for six months, Mike Jarman got up, looked in the mirror, and heard the same thing from the image staring back at him: “This cannot be done.”

    In the end, he and others did it. They founded The Vista School®, an Approved Private School (APS) for children with autism in Central Pennsylvania.

    The long and arduous journey to a new educational model for children with autism began 20 years ago in the delivery room of Harrisburg’s Polyclinic Hospital, where the Jarmans’ twin boys were born sick.

    At the time, Jarman was working on a project at the hospital and was onsite frequently. He was able to care for the twins as they battled pneumonia. Eventually, the antibiotics worked, and the boys were sent home.

    Because of their illness, the twins were eligible for a hospital follow-up study funded by a federal grant. The Jarmans, who had a 2-year-old daughter but no sons and certainly not twins, saw the value in such a study and chose to participate. From the first visit to their home, it was clear to researchers that the boys, Patrick and Sean, were missing developmental targets. By 18 months, Patrick’s behavior, in particular, alarmed his parents.

    Jarman’s online search for answers soon led him to conclude the boys had autism. Patrick’s symptoms were more severe than Sean’s. Immediately, Jarman turned his attention to treatment.

    One of the only viable options he found was Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a data-driven approach to treatment developed in the 1980s by the University of California at Los Angeles. Yet, there was no realistic chance for families that were not wealthy to get this treatment for their children. To make matters worse, the treatment available to them at that time was inconsistent, not intensive, and only available for one or two hours a week. Jarman needed 40 hours a week for Patrick.

    “There was no rhyme or reason to what they were doing,” Jarman said. “They were just babysitting.”

    That’s when Jarman became, in his words, “Wacko No. 1 on the list of potential wackos.”

    The system was flawed, he told the various government entities providing autism services. “It wasn’t going to work. They had to stop doing the thing they were doing, and admit that they were spending money to make kids not better or even worse.”

    Couldn’t he compromise, they asked – meet them halfway. But Jarman was adamant. “I was right. I was just right,” he said. “I knew I was right, and they were wrong. I had to make it clear to them there was no compromise on this.”

    Meanwhile, the Jarmans searched for someone to supplement the limited services they were receiving. Through a cold call to Rutgers University looking for an ABA-trained therapist in the area, the Jarmans found Kendra Peacock, now the supervisor of outreach services at The Vista School.

    Peacock soon told the Jarmans that ABA would help Sean, too. Under her supervision, Sean was approaching full remediation by age 3 to 5, and Patrick was beginning to talk.

    Two years of “nasty litigation” ensued to try to start up a center-based, one-team approach to educating children with autism. During that time, other parents joined the fight. Just when it looked like the families would need a miracle to achieve their dream, their luck turned. The state gave its stamp of approval by licensing The Vista School.

    Finally, parents no longer had to face bankruptcy to get critically needed autism services for their children – and Mike Jarman’s mirror stopped talking back.

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