Editor's note: Claudia Wallis, a former Time editor at large, completed a yearlong Spencer Fellowship at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in which her reporting focused on the treatment and education of children with autism. To see more of her autism project, visit her Web site.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- All parents have hopes and dreams for their children. Parents of kids with serious disabilities are no different. But in their moments of wildest imagination, the parents of Vicki Martinez, Chase Ferguson and Travis Cardona could not have envisioned high school graduation -- certainly not in the dark days when they first learned their children had autism.
But last month, in a spacious high school auditorium in the Bronx, Vicki, Chase and Travis marched down the aisle to "Pomp and Circumstance," resplendent in their caps and gowns, along with 15 classmates at P.S. 176X, a New York City public school with 560 students ranging in age from 3 to 21, all of whom have autism.
"When I came here, I couldn't talk. I talked gibberish," the now-voluble Vicki recalls. "I didn't do my class work; I'd go like this," and she proceeds to flap her hands -- a common symptom of autism known as stereotypy or, self-stimulation.
Nationally, there is much debate over how best to educate the nation's rapidly growing and diverse population of youngsters with autism, the prevalence of which has increased tenfold over the past 25 years. The quality of services offered by public schools varies enormously from place to place. Some parents relocate to school districts that offer good autism services. Some persuade or even sue their district to pay for private school placement, which can cost $70,000 a year or more.