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'They’re truly like a family' | Avondale House serves students through pandemic

The nonprofit offers a school and residential program for children and adults with autism.

HOUSTON — Remote learning comes with challenges for students of all ages, but it’s especially difficult for those with intellectual disabilities, such as Noah Johnson.

Born early and diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome, Noah also has autism. Mom Tracy says up until sixth grade, school was a struggle for him.

“Eventually we went the way of Avondale House, which absolutely changed our life. I can’t even begin to sing the praises of Avondale House enough,” she says.

Avondale House is a non-profit school and residential program for children and adults with autism.

“We help folks who have autism to develop to their fullest potential,” explains CEO Steve Vetrano. “We provide whatever resources, training or education that we can to help them develop to their full potential.”

Day school, like Noah attends, is one of many programs run by Avondale House. It also operates three group homes, an adult day program and employment services.

“I love the work that we do at Avondale House,” Vetrano says. “The families who are part of our Avondale House family, I know they appreciate all the love and support our team provides for their children.”

The team continues to provide those services through the COVID-19 pandemic, even though day school is being taught remotely right now.

“Usually we have interaction with them all day long,” says teacher Claudia Love. “Now we have our Zoom meetings three days a week and we contact the parents every day and the kids have to work from home.”

That makes teaching more of a challenge than it’s ever been before.

“Kids who have autism need to have that routine every day,” Love says. “They need to have some sort of communication every day and really have a set schedule. It’s really hard for them to be home every day.”

She’s desperate to get back into her classroom, just as students like Noah are.

“He asks us about 575 million times a day when it’s going to open,” says Tracy. “We’re starting to struggle now because of the length of time. He’s beginning to lose hope.”

That’s why Vetrano says Avondale House is talking to state leaders about how to reopen safely.

“We are just hearing from our families that they need help. We want to provide that, but the current orders don’t really allow us to allow them into the facility. We’re hoping to get some sort of waiver to make that happen to help our families,” says Vetrano. “If I could open up tomorrow just to have the kids come here for respite, I would do that, but we don’t want to do that in a way that violates any order or is not safe.”

When school does start up again, Tracy looks forward to Noah’s reunion with the people he cherishes.

“Instead of thinking of them like a school or teachers, they’re truly like a family to us and they have really, really hit the mark on trying to make things better for their families,” she says.

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