Pauline Lee remembers standing by her cousin's side through every therapy session and doctor's appointment. They were incredibly close, even though he rarely spoke.
She recalls the incredible thing that happened when he was first given art supplies. For the first time in 15 years, she said, her nonverbal, autistic cousin demonstrated an ability no one had ever thought possible.
While overjoyed at his revelation, she couldn't help but feel a sense of melancholy as well.
"It makes me sad because in my head it's like, 'OK, so then all this time, he could have been enjoying showing the world all that,'" she said.
That spark eventually led Lee to form the Program for Intellectual Empowerment, or PIE, with 10 other Beaverton-area families in 2018. The year-round day school, 12385 S.W. Allen Blvd., serves students with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual disabilities. The curriculum includes typical subjects like history, biology, math and reading, but framed in a way to meet students where they're at, Lee said.
"It's meant to shift the paradigm from how kids fit in our world," she said. "It's more that we want to fit into their world."
Lee wants to make it clear that she has nothing against the public school system, understanding that they are operating based on what they know, but the lack of child-centered, relevant curriculum can often leave some kids behind, she said.
Lee, who also has a master's degree in neuro-education, started her career in special education in 2011 as a student teacher. Time and again, she said, many teachers and programs were focused too heavily on eliminating certain behaviors rather than building skills.
"The thing is, our brains are not just behavior, right?" she said. "Our brains are conceptual. There's learning. They acquire knowledge. In fact, our brains acquire development. And so when we are in a school system, where the only thing that these kids have in common is age, we start to think that development is linear, which it's not. We have to acquire our development."
Melissa Marks, whose daughter Lucy attends PIE, believes she made the right choice not sending her student to public school. That "mainstream environment," she said, isn't ready to appreciate all that Lucy has to offer.
"I don't think any public school or adult foster care program has really mastered inclusion," she said. "Some of it is a kind of theater. None of it is really all that effective."
At PIE, Marks says Lucy was finally able to thrive in a way she had never seen before. She remembers the remarkable moment when Lucy started to read aloud road signs they passed on the road — and comprehend what they meant.
Lucy has autism and an intellectual disability. She could always read, her mother said, but the quantity started to change after she began to attend PIE. She began to read more, and was finally able to retain and understand what she was reading.
"I asked her, 'What does it mean when you see a truck that says Green Gardens? What kind of truck do you think that is?' And (Lucy) would be able to say, 'They do gardening,' or, 'They do landscaping,' or something like that," Marks said. "I think with Pauline's program, she's been able to add an extra level into her thinking."
Lee describes the human brain as a filing cabinet. As a person acquires knowledge over time, she said, the brain organizes concepts and ideas in the brain for easy retrieval.
"The problem with kids with special needs is their drawers are pulled out and dumped over and everything is scattered, especially my nonverbal students," Lee said. "Everything's scattered, everything's open. They can't figure out the concepts, and yet we have adults that are yelling or shouting at them phrases like 'sit down' or 'be quiet.'"
The English language can be an added challenge, Lee said. Words often have multiple meanings and conversational speaking is rife with subtext which some students lack.
"English is a very low-context language," she said. "We have a lot of words that don't actually give us pictures. And so kids with special needs, we're telling them all these things. We're taking away pictures by not giving them enough words, and then we're getting mad at them for having behaviors. And then we put our adult assumption of, 'Oh, he's tired,' or 'he's lazy,' or 'he doesn't want to work.' No, he doesn't have enough information. That's really all it is."
Mimi Mcquire, whose son Brian attends PIE, says seeing videos of him work independently in a classroom for the first time was a game changer. She is also seeing him express himself in a way she didn't realize was possible.
"The expressions are coming easier," she said. "It used to be, if we asked him a question, he just responded with one word. Now you can see more of his expressions. He'll tell you exactly what he thinks and he'll say, 'Well, can I earn this?' or, 'You know, Mom, I finished all my chores. Can I earn this?'"
Lee said she would ultimately like to expand PIE to be more than just a school. She envisions an entire campus with resources like a business center, housing and even college courses.
"They can learn different things in a more open, inclusive, learning environment that really gives them the concept to be happy, thriving, successful adults," she said. "Really, the biggest thing I've found with these kids is there's nothing to fix. We just want to build them up a better version of themselves."
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