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Howard Gray School caters to needs of autistic students

Kids with autism don’t always do well in public schools.

The brain disorder makes it hard for them to concentrate in large and noisy classes, and sometimes they are bullied by their peers simply because they act differently.

But for the past three decades, a Scottsdale school has provided the students with tools to improve their grades and social skills.

If anyone wants a tour of the Howard Gray School all they need to do is ask Dave Bachmann. He’s an enthusiastic English teacher who has worked here for 35 years. 

"Right now the kids are doing a writing assignment in here and so they’re all at their work stations," Bachmann said.

Howard Gray isn’t like other schools. It’s owned by the Banner Health Care system, and it’s located at Banner’s mental health clinic in Scottsdale. 

It’s a private day school that accepts special needs students referred by public districts from around the Phoenix area. 

Bachmann said,  "We have kids on the autism spectrum, we have kids here with mood disorders, we have kids here with bipolar disorders.  We have kids here with depression issue.”

Bachmann said many Howard Gray students were bullied at their old schools, and then typically what happens is they start behaving badly.

“Over the years we’ve had a few kids that came here because they made threats against their school. They reacted to that bullying the only way they thought they could, which is wrong of course.  You don’t react with violence. But its understandable when you see what some of these kids have to go through," he said.

Autism is getting a lot of attention following last December's school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Although his motive is still unknown, gunman Adam Lanza was diagnosed with a form of autism. Here at the Howard Gray school, some students admit they've had violent feelings.

"I came to this school with suicidal thoughts and depression and all of that," said high school senior Alexandra Sheirer of Chandler.

She likes to be called Alex, and said she's been able to work through her problems with the help of the teachers and her friends. 

"The school has helped me get methods for coping, get methods to deal with that. I have improved, I’m not as down in a rut as much as I used to be, so I’ve gotten a lot better," she said.

Now, Sheirer dreams of going to college to study nursing and she even likes to call herself a mentor for other autistic students who’ve had similar life experiences

Sixteen-year-old Ann Marie Rivera also was tormented by other kids at her public school a few years ago. Her pain shows through as she stares into the distance and reflects on her past.  

“I was a victim of bullying. I’m very naïve and I wouldn’t really know what to say. I wouldn’t really know what to do. I was really shy. I’m not as shy as I used to be," she said.

Jeanne Zimmer is Ann Marie's grandmother. “She’s more confident. She’s learning to speak up for herself, and that made other areas of her life, other social areas, better. And her moods are good because she’s happy here.”

This year there are only 32 kids enrolled, but the school is cramped and administrators are looking for a bigger building even though some students are preparing to leave.

Alex Scheirer is graduating in May, and she’s hopeful that the people who used to pick on her will do more to understand autism.

“We’re just like you, just because we don’t look the same, we don’t talk the same, just because we have a slight stutter or Turrettes doesn’t mean we’re different. I mean it makes us unique, it makes us special," Scheirer said.

A lot of the students at Howard Gray will tell you being someone special goes way beyond having special needs. Now that they’ve developed new methods to cope with real life and deal with bullies, some of them want to return to public school.  Others look forward to attending college or getting their first job, the next step in their life living with autism.