Using drama, film, music, movement and other methods, the Spectrum Program at New Roads High School in Santa Monica offers a high school program for students with social-cognitive learning disabilities, such as autism.

Social cognition relates to social and emotional processing, such as perception, memory and judgment.

Those with autism and other social-cognitive learning disabilities have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication and with day-to-day social interaction, according to Nancy London, Spectrum program coordinator.

A lawyer by profession, London started the program out of desperation as she looked for a high school for her daughter, who was diagnosed at an early age with autism spectrum disorder.

London wanted her daughter to continue having positive experiences with typical kids, but she had concerns about sending her to a regular high school where the focus was more academic than social.

“Many parents are just trying to get their children through school, but the bigger picture is that school is about helping students learn to lead productive lives,” London says.

“For these students, it’s not about learning chemistry but about how to make a friend,” she says.

She adds that it’s also about how to get these youths to take the social skills they’ve mastered in school and use them in situations in the real world.

Begun in September, the program started with six youths and two full-time teachers who have extensive training in special education.

The program gives priority to the needs of its students and is designed to help them learn real-world social and communication skills and become more independent, productive members of society, according to London.

As London searched for the appropriate school for her daughter, no one could recommend one and she was repeatedly encouraged to start her own school.

Early last year, she sent New Roads School founder Paul Cummins an e-mail saying she was dissatisfied with her daughter’s high school options and asked him if he was willing to talk about a program at New Roads.

After his discussion with London, Cummins was intrigued and from there London spoke with David Bryan, New Roads School head, who embraced the idea.

London and Martha Jura, a clinical psychologist at UCLA, developed the curriculum with input from Connie Kasari, a psychological educator and researcher on autism.

The program follows the New Roads academic schedule in the morning and in the afternoon when the rest of the students take electives, the Spectrum students take a specialized curriculum whose core elements are social skills, life skills and communication training.

London says that when these youths are taught behaviors, such as the polite way to talk to someone, they intellectually understand it, but when sent into the real world five minutes later they don’t do it.

“We started thinking we can’t just teach a set of skills in a certain situation because when they have to improvise, they don’t know how,” she says.

To get to the deeper level where the students understand how to apply what they learn in class to new situations in the real world, London and her team use narratives as well as other modalities.

London says the program uses relatively short and simple stories, or narratives, hoping that, “If we repeat stories enough and ask the students questions, we can create a template in their mind, an understanding of how to function in the real world.”

For example, the film The Red Balloon, which has no dialogue, is used as a tool in class.

Students are asked to make a prediction about what the film will be about based on the title, are shown eight minutes of the film and are then asked what they think happened.

Students are also placed in groups of two and asked to tell each other what happened. The students may also write dialogue or act it out.

London says she and her team hope that after the students read a story or see a film and dissect it, they will begin to recognize how life works and that there will be an improved ability to relate the situation to real life.

London says the classes incorporate a research environment and the students are videotaped so that the educators and therapists involved with the program can further develop the curriculum and evaluate its efficacy.

The Spectrum Program is partially funded by tuition and private funders, and grants will be sought.

London feels that the program will be able to take ten to 12 students next year, although more funding is needed.

“Our purpose is to prove this works and develop a model curriculum to give to public schools so they can use it,” she said.

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Julie Kirst can be reached at