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Jan 4, 2013 1:00 PM by Lauren Molenburg

Montana farm school plans include autistic kids

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - The seed for Sherry Lewis-Peterson's farm-based school has been germinating for quite a while.

It's time now, she says, to make it grow.

Lewis-Peterson has formed a nonprofit organization called Farming for the Future Academy, with the goal of establishing a 5-acre working farm and school that would feature an educational program for children with autism and other learning disabilities.

"We want it to be open to everyone, not just for autistic children," she said.

Her mission is to create a school that can unlock each student's potential to achieve success, regardless of ability, in an agricultural learning environment.

"Every child has their own way of learning, and every kid should have an individualized education plan," she said.

Lewis-Peterson has personal insight into what it takes to raise an autistic child.

She and her husband, Chris Peterson, have a 14-year-old autistic son, Hunter. They struggled to advocate the best learning environment for their son within the public school system, and now home-school Hunter.

Lewis-Peterson, who has a degree in psychology and elementary education and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, just returned from a three-month special education course in Cuba, N.Y.

During that time she was a student teacher for a life skills classroom where she worked exclusively with 10 autistic children ages 14 to 21.

"The experience in New York was an eye-opener," she said. "The life skills classroom is pretty much what we'll be doing with the farm."

To get Farming for the Future Academy jump-started, Lewis-Peterson is searching for 5-plus acres, ideally in a central location within the Flathead Valley. She's advertising for a land donation or cooperative land-sharing arrangement. The nonprofit will raise money and use grants, loans - "whatever it takes" - to get the farm-based school up and running.

Lewis-Peterson also is looking for volunteers and constructive advice.

"People have so much knowledge," she said. "They don't realize how much they can give you."

The agricultural component is essential, especially for special-needs children, she said.

Students will work in an outdoor classroom for part of their curriculum. "Greenhouses will be used to avoid adverse weather and to continue hands-on learning throughout the school year," Lewis-Peterson said.

The educational model is similar to what Lewis-Peterson uses at the home-based Plum Tree Daycare and Preschool she has operated for 15 years. She got a grant to build a spacious greenhouse in her backyard. During the summer the children help garden, and in the winter the greenhouse provides shelter for the family's chickens and rabbits.

Farming for the Future would use cash crops such as strawberries, alfalfa, grains and even beef to sustain school programs that will encourage marketing, nutrition and organic crop awareness.

Lewis-Peterson already sells excess produce at the local farmers market, and that would continue on the farm on a larger scale.

"The skills we're trying to teach these children, like responsibility, care-taking, are skills that can be implemented in a job setting," she said.

Touch-screen instructional teaching using iPads is part of the plan. Touch screens can be placed throughout the farm where step-by-step instruction is needed for tasks such as weeding, milking, cleaning and cooking. The screens will have instructions broken down into basic steps to encourage independent learning depending on the students' needs.

Lewis-Peterson already uses this kind of instruction with her son for tasks such making the family's favorite "Aussie" burgers.

Kari Jurgens, an occupational therapist who has worked with Hunter throughout his life, and pediatric physical therapist Cindy Marshall will offer specialized services at the academy.

Jurgens said a farm setting is ideal for giving children, especially those with learning disabilities, opportunities for more physical activity and interaction. The key, she said, is making the program individualized for each student.

Lewis-Peterson noted that the academy will encourage new ideas and teaching techniques that may not have been tried in public schools.

"We have to find what motivates each child," she said. "It's taking the time to build the relationship with the child."

When Hunter was diagnosed with mild autism just before his third birthday, there was nowhere near the amount of information that is available now for the disorder.

"I had an education background and with my own child I could not figure it out," Lewis-Peterson said. "He was having meltdowns and crying and the doctors said, 'He's a boy. He's just growing slower.'"

She eventually took Hunter to the Child Development Center.

"I was prepared for them to say you need to work on these things," she recalled. "I was not prepared for autism. All I knew (about the disorder) was 'Rain Man,'" the popular film in which Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic savant.

"Your whole world gets slammed into a tiny box," she said.

Lewis-Peterson believes Hunter's autism was caused by immunizations he was mistakenly given when he was 2 weeks old.

"It's a personal belief," she stressed.

Hunter, at 2 weeks, got shots meant for a 3-month-old. But the disorder didn't manifest itself until he was hospitalized for croup at 18 months.

"Before that he was talking in full sentences," she said. "When he got out of the hospital it was gone."

Lewis-Peterson and her husband have worked to create their own individualized education for Hunter. It's that philosophy that will flourish at the academy.

"We follow core standards, but we can also make it work for the child," she said.

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Information from: Daily Inter Lake, http://www.dailyinterlake.com

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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