Whidbey mothers' autism school will be first in state

Dylan Matros and Sierra Winkler, the son and daughter of Wintros Academy’s co-founders, are introduced to their new school. The academy will offer therapy and education for autistic students.  - Photo courtesy Charity Winkler
Dylan Matros and Sierra Winkler, the son and daughter of Wintros Academy’s co-founders, are introduced to their new school. The academy will offer therapy and education for autistic students.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Charity Winkler

Writer Emily Perl Kingsley once described the experience of raising a child with a disability by using an analogy about planning a vacation trip to Italy, but instead, landing in Holland.

“The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would have never met,” Kingsley wrote.

Area residents Brandi Matros and Charity Winkler met in 2002 as mothers of autistic children. Autism is a brain development disorder that impairs social interaction and causes restricted, repetitive behavior.

Their kids were enrolled at the Toddler Learning Center and received therapy at Whidbey General Hospital.

“At that time, I felt like my child wasn’t receiving enough therapy and individual care. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that autistic children need about 25 hours of intensive therapy a week. School districts can’t provide that because they have many other children to deal with,” Winkler said.

In 2005, Winkler and Matros began to discuss an alternative schooling option to the public education system for young autistic learners. The attorney Winkler works for helped them set up a non-profit.

“I had several teleconferences with people from other states that have the school we wanted,” Winkler said.

On Sept. 2, the doors will open to Winkler and Matros’ combined vision, and names: Wintros Academy, the first private school in Washington for children with autism.

Matros said the plan is to habilitate children on the autism spectrum by offering one-on-one education and specific therapies such as speech and occupational. One program called TEACHH is a learning style in which the educator tries to see from the child’s point of view, to help them discover their interests.

After school, the children can be involved with peer modeling. An autistic child is paired with a typically developing child so they can practice social skills. A peer educator will facilitate.

“It’s monitored so there’s no name calling or meanness. As they learn to assimilate, an adult can help explain why things are the way they are,” Winkler said.

The group secured a house in Coupeville for the first year or two, while a permanent home is being built.

In 2004, more than 3,700 autistic children attended Washington public schools. The Wintros program will have a small enrollment limit to start but they hope to eventually expand the education to adulthood.

“Many autistic children need that one-on-one time in the beginning and a smaller group of six to 12 will better facilitate that. We’re starting at the elementary school level,” Matros said.

Matros plans to enroll her own son, Dylan, at Wintros. And in the meantime, Dylan is home-schooled.

“He can’t handle a lot of outside stimulus. Lots of kids in a classroom overwhelm him. This school will be less chaotic for him,” Matros said.

Students will work at their own pace and under the umbrella of one head teacher, Renetta Sawatzki, who will plan their agenda.

Saturday, June 28 at 6 p.m. the group is holding a gala at the Oak Harbor Elks Club to raise money for the academy. There will be cocktails, a DJ for dancing and a silent auction. Winkler said some of the items for bid are Mariners and Seahawks tickets and jerseys, nature photography and spa vacations.

Winkler said the community can help these children become as independent as possible.

“For the community, we hope the program will provide a sense of togetherness. If we don’t help these children now, they’ll be dependent on the state and Social Security,” Winkler said. “I think these kids will get a real pride in helping themselves.”

Wintros Academy

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