The specific learning needs of Autistic students are not always met in traditional special education, or even in specialized autism classes or schools. We talked with Susan Walton, founder of the new OASIS school near Santa Cruz, California, about ensuring her autistic son had access to an educational environment that not only helps him learn, but lets him thrive.

TPGA: Tell us about OASIS. Who are your ideal students?

[image: the OASIS school sign outside
an exterior building door.]

Susan Walton: OASIS, the Outdoor Autism and Special Issues School, is a new Non-Public School in Freedom, California, which is in Santa Cruz county. We’ve developed a program that we are excited to offer to new students. We serve seriously autistic students between Junior High and school completion.

But more specifically, we cater to those autistic students who need a lot of activity. Our students crave movement and need variety. They are stifled by being in the same room for extended amounts of time, and this can often lead to real school problems. Our students tend to be hands-on learners who thrive at unraveling challenges, as opposed to taking in knowledge from tutelage.

TPGA: What is the curriculum at OASIS like? How is it different from other autism schools and classrooms you’ve encountered?

Susan Walton: We’ve designed our curriculum to be highly functional, and we pair most lessons with real-world opportunities to practice. We focus on how traditional subjects like math, science, and language are tied to daily life. And we are passionate that these things must be worked on in the community and in the world, not in fake classroom models.

[image: Two people walking next to yellow
train cars, in a forest clearing.]

Our teacher delves into what our students love. We get behind the scenes and deconstruct whenever possible. We are constantly working with people in the community to discover what they do and how they do it. Some of the lessons we’ve had lately have been at a restaurant, a bakery, a radio station, an orchid grower, and a sign painter’s studio. We love to learn about professions and how the objects we encounter every day come into being. And we learn from the outdoors, especially about the natural sciences. We are fortunate that we have access to an amazing State Parks system as well as tons of marine exploration opportunities.

We also take life skills very seriously. Shopping, doing laundry, riding the bus, using the library, going to the farmer’s market, the pharmacy … these are not “field trips” or occasional opportunities. These are things that we do every week. These are skills that take practice. Part of the challenge and the pleasure in these are that the places are never the same two days in a row. And we swim every day, which gives us the opportunity to practice all kinds of self-care and independence skills that can be glossed over in traditional school settings.

So our two biggest differences are that we are so active, and that we spend so much time on community skills. Our students get a lot of movement and exercise, rain or shine. We look upon our premises as a place to come and go from, a home base, but we don’t hang around there for hours on end. And we believe there is no reason to wait until a student is 18 to begin thinking about community interaction, vocational tools, and life skills. It is nonsensical to attempt to acquire those things in a phony version of the world. Classrooms are phony. You buy food in a supermarket. You do laundry in a laundromat. So that’s where we work on those things.

TPGA: How did you end up starting your own autism school?

[image: White and African-American
OASIS students on a forest trail.]

Susan Walton: I watched with distress as my son flamed out of school after school. I sat in more meetings than I could ever count, trying to explain to various people why their seated, indoor demands were increasingly painful to him. Why he hated coming to school. I tried to convince them of the movement and activity level he needed. I knew that each of these people had good intentions, but he still wasn’t getting what he needed.

I eventually had to admit that the very structure of those programs was the reason that they couldn’t provide it. The only way he could spend a large portion of his school day learning in motion was if I stopped trying to convince others to provide it and I got busy arranging it directly. I used support staff to create a program that I believed in for him. 

Less than a year in, it was very clear that he was thriving. He was educationally engaged, and taking the initiative in all kinds of new ways. Bouts of aggression and self-injury, which had reached their zenith in what was called an “ABA-based” school, had become very few and far between. His overall anxiety level cooled way down.

I knew we could never go back to the other way. And I knew he was not the only student struggling the way that he had been. So I began the process with the California Department of Education to become certified, so we could add more students. It was important to have that certification before growing.

TPGA: How did you select the school site?

Susan Walton: It was a combination of need, luck, and lightning, I suppose. Our first site was a simple classroom in a local church, and it offered some nice community aspects and shared resources. But we outgrew it.

[image: Two OASIS students
in a swimming pool.]

We wanted to stay near the warm pool where our students swim, and be near commerce like a grocery store and a bus stop. When I walked into our current site for the first time, I had that feeling of rightness you hope to find.

We have downstairs neighbors like a dojo and an exercise studio. But we have no close neighbor on the building’s upper floor, which we also love since we have no intention of shushing our students, or shutting down stims. We have a lovely amount of space with facilities to prepare and eat meals, within easy reach of all the resources we value, from beaches to stores, books to buses. And a meeting room for IEPs.

TPGA: Why do you think there are so few appropriate options for high-support autistic students, given their diverse educational needs?

Susan Walton: Certainly the shortage of Special Education teachers in California (and nationwide) plays a big role. And the rigors of the Department of Education process is probably also a factor. Any school that sets out to do something other than what currently exists has to expend serious effort complying with all of the systemic challenges, even as they preserve what they want to offer. I came to the process with both passion and patience, but there were times I thought we’d never get through it. Certainly I came to understand — at a whole new level — why all the special education schools I’d ever seen operated the way that they do.

But I am sure this is the same in many industries. Status quo is always easier than being different. Educators need to bring passion and commitment to new models. It can be done.

TPGA: What are the next steps for the school?

[image: African-American and white OASIS
students pushing a Safeway shopping cart.]

Susan Walton: We want to grow at a pace that allows us to preserve our strengths. I have a lot of ideas about new curriculum we can develop to integrate with our community, new partnerships, ways we can grow and delve into student passions. I’d like to involve more general education students in internships, because we had a couple of student interns this past summer and it was a big success. Most of all I want to create vocational paths for our students as we identify their individual interests and build community relationships.

TPGA: How many students can your school currently accept, and how do they apply?

Susan Walton: We intend to serve five students this year. Parents can contact us directly at to ask questions about potential fit, or they can ask their school district to make contact with us so we can work through the IEP system. 

Ultimately all OASIS parents do need to work with their school district to place their student at our school.