There is an old English poem written by a woman called Sarah Williams, in which she describes a passionate scientist facing the hardship of society’s scorn and doubt. Through reflection, he comes to the understanding that while any struggle (which he compares to a dark night) is inevitable, there is a way to conquer it– simply by facing that which scares you the most and battling it. “Though my soul may set in darkness,” he says, “it will rise in perfect light, I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

The Star Academy, the most successful international affiliate of the Centre for Autism and Related Disorders, is a very much aptly named special needs school, catering for individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. Receiving an autistic or related disorder diagnosis can seem like an eternal ‘night’ with little to no hope for recovery. Yet in this tumultuous darkness shine little sparks of courage – the ‘stars’ whose impact will be forever remembered. These stars are the warriors against autism – yes, recovery is possible. They are not afraid to combat this darkness. In Southern Africa, these guiding lights are the highly-skilled, Applied Behaviour Analysis therapists at the Star Academy, who every single day put on boxing gloves in the fight against autism.

At the Star Academy, development and recovery is the goal. Recovery in day to day life can simply mean progressing from level A to level B. The smallest achievements inspire the fight for the bigger ones that are to come. All our children recover in some way. Oftentimes, this recovery can even mean that a child who was previously diagnosed with an ASD diagnosis no longer qualifies for this diagnosis. It can also mean that a child will score average to above average on standardised tests, or manages to cope in a mainstream school environment with no facilitator. But it is no simple journey to get there, and there is usually a transition between children in special needs schools to them in mainstream.

Traditionally, the word “school” connotes a place of learning and progress, and yes, to some extent, the Star Academy is in itself a special needs school. We have our “educators” and we have our “pupils” – but it is the little differences that make The Star Academy twinkle and shine out amidst the other learning institutions in Africa.

Mainstream schooling in South Africa is indeed becoming more inclusive – and thus becoming more similar to special needs schools. The Department of Basic Education has made a shift towards accepting learners with all manners of special needs into South African schools. Still, even with the option of a facilitator, parents and caregivers oftentimes look at the benefits of special needs schools catered specifically to their children with an ASD diagnosis. Mainstream schooling unfortunately includes an inflexible curriculum, limited manners of teaching and communication and inadequately trained educators, while special needs schools offer smaller classroom environments, different educational streams for different types of learners, additional support and monthly assessments.

At the Star Academy, we fight harder.

Using the instructional technique of ABA, we at Star build individualised and intensive therapy programs for our children with which no other special needs school can compare. Our training and subsequent Board Certification means that from the beginning of the journey we look at each child as a unique case and create the program best fit for them. The only mould that the child needs to fit into is into their own – unlike in many special needs schools, where children with the same or similar diagnoses are grouped together with only occasional individualised support. At Star, we work one-on-one with our children, but are empowered with the backing of an active team, constantly in contact and united with a common goal – the success of the child. Our skills acquisition is all encompassing – we focus on the areas of social, academic, cognitive, language, adaptive and play skills and executive functions. At Star, we realise the importance of and thus place emphasis on training our children to constantly communicate with us. Communication is something that can be lost even in the exclusive environment of a special needs school. Our children are given a voice which we will not let be lost in the darkness of autism. Their parents and caregivers are comforted because, in order to maintain the consistency in the progress on which we thrive, they are actively involved every step of their child’s path towards recovery. At Star, we assess progress weekly based on detailed daily feedback – and we push for results. We set goals, we brainstorm, we fight – we let our lights shine.

This passion and intense focus on detail is not something that can be found in every special needs school.

“Though my soul may set in darkness,” wrote Sarah Williams, “it will rise in perfect light, I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

We. Are. Not. Afraid. The night of autism will not take a hold on us completely. While we may be faced with a dark setting, our spirits will be lifted in a perfect rising of courage. As our name implies – the darker the night, the brighter we will shine. We will rise and we will overpower autism. Hope. That is the essence of the Star Academy. We are a special needs school, but more – we are a battalion of armed soldiers. We are more than a traditional special needs school – we are a family.

Did I mention that the poem I quoted is called, “the Old Astronomer to his pupil?” It’s worth a read.

Hodaya Vaknin