JSA offers hope and inspiration to parents of children with autism

JSA offers hope and inspiration to parents of children with autism

April is World Autism Month with Autism Awareness Day designated as April 2. For the Jacksonville School for Autism (JSA), however, April 2 is one of many days in its ongoing mission to put “Autism in Action” each day. For the past 16 years, the school has served students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) ranging in age from three through 25 years old.

“JSA focuses on acceptance, not just awareness,” said Michelle Dunham, the school’s executive director. “We see every student beyond an autism diagnosis and assume their intelligence to uncover their individual and unique abilities.”

Michelle & Mark Dunham
Michelle & Mark Dunham

JSA reports that one in 50 children have autism; one in 140 cannot speak. Boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism. Autism is on the rise and is now the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United States.

Nick with girlfriend
Nick with girlfriend

For Dunham, autism is a deeply personal story of raising a child with this diagnosis. In 2000, her husband, Mark, and she learned that their son, Nick, had autism.

“The child we knew was gone in an instant, and so were our dreams for his future,” Dunham said. The Dunhams decided to go from “impact to inspiration,” and founded JSA.

Since then, JSA has grown from a grassroots school of two students and one teacher to now supporting 60 students from six counties and more than 50 teachers and therapists.

“We have some families who have moved across the country to receive the lifechanging services for their children,” Dunham said.

Nick
Nick

According to JSA, by 2030 it is projected that one in two boys will be diagnosed with autism. There is no medical detection or cure for autism and it can cost a family $60,000 a year, on average, in managing it. JSA works with families to create a lifechanging environment for students to believe in themselves and achieve their best.

JSA provides program in early childhood development, academic/behavioral classroom models, clinical therapy, enrichment classes and a vocational Supportive Transition & Employment Placement (STEP) program designed to give young adults the skills necessary to be successful and productive members.

New JSA Campus
New JSA Campus

“One of our most critical needs is to have space for all the on-campus vocational training and enterprises for our rapidly expanding STEP program,” said Dunham. “Life span services are critical to support our aging population of young adults to ensure a future full of hope and independence.”

The school’s five-year plan has been to find a permanent school home. It purchased a building in February 2020 only three weeks before the school had to shut down due to COVID-19.

“We faced the serious threat of laying off our staff and potentially losing our new school campus,” Dunham said. She credits the generosity of grantors, individual donors and loyal supporters for raising nearly $700,000 to keep the school going and growing. The school opened back up for school in August 2020 in its new school building.

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