Lauretta Murdock, founder of The Mosaic School for Autism and The Mosaic Foundation for Autism, had loved her attorney job for Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, and teaching at Touro Law School. But after learning that both her young boys had autism, she changed course and began an exhaustive search for effective autism treatment methods and schools.
When one of her sons showed no sign of progress after a year of special schooling, Murdock put her faith in teaching him through a technique called "applied behavior analysis."
"What that method promised me was something that I think any lawyer could appreciate, because it was a measurable outcome," she said. "If I spend X amount of time trying to teach my son to say a certain word . . . I will know at the end of some period of time whether he's learned it or not."
Unable to enroll her sons at her preferred schools because of long waiting lists, Murdock in 2004 gathered parents to form a co-op, which eventually became the small Mosaic School, ranging from four to nine pupils.
How do you start a school?
You need to start out with a good group of trustees [and] have several months' cash available. People don't always pay their bills when you need them to, and you can't tell your teachers, "Oh, you're going to have to wait two weeks until tuition is paid up."
How did you look for funding?
People who really wanted their children to come to the school initially put up the money. We did get a few grants, and because we're not-for-profit we were also able to do some fundraising and that was a lot of fun. But it was a lot of work. We found a lot of local businesses that really supported us and were very helpful to us.
What are the biggest costs?
Teacher salaries. You want the best teachers, and you want people to stay with you. I've always tried to create a family of people that could look forward to things like good training and opportunities down the road.
What do you look for when hiring?
I pick people who have that desire to be a part of a team. It's also extremely important to me that people can accept feedback, because this is not a job where you come and you know everything that you're supposed to be doing.
You're working on a program to get other kids to recognize how hard it is to have autism. What's your wish?
Ultimately, I would love for every child to have, as part of their curriculum, just how hard it is to be a person with a disability, and what could you do to make their lives easier -- or just how can you accept them and help them feel good about who they are.
What's a future goal?
We'd like to become an organization that could even provide adult services, because our children are starting to age. We can take children from 5 to 21, and that surprises people. A lot of programs don't want to take a 16-year-old with autism, because they come with a history of potential issues and behavior problems. We've really been able to work with some very tough kids and help them improve their lives.
How did you learn enough in order to train others to be effective with autistic kids?
I went to every seminar I could. I bought every book I could find and went into schools that were actually doing some applied behavior analysis and watched. I took a series of trainings to become a board-certified behavior analyst, and that has really improved how school districts work with me. It is a science, a system of learning how to motivate behavior on a totally different level than what we're used to as educators.
We always try to individualize. We test and evaluate them and find out what they know and what they don't know. When you have a child, for example, who can't sit and learn and just won't pay attention to you, you start teaching him to sit, learn and pay attention to you. You start developing systems that will reinforce the slightest move towards a positive behavior. There's a whole system built around that -- about reinforcing things to get closer and closer to where it is you want him to go.
What would be an effective reinforcement?
It depends on the child. With really young kids, it tends to be edibles -- preferred foods -- maybe a sip of juice or soda or a Skittle. As children get older, you really do need to move away from those things, but you have to understand that a lot of children with autism, at least initially, are not reinforced by the things that most kids are reinforced with. So telling them they did a good job isn't really all that meaningful to them, but letting them work on a token system so that at the end of 15 minutes of work they can go and play with an iPad is very reinforcing. What you do is you provide social reinforcement at the same time, so you're giving another token and saying, "You did a great job. You did this really well. Terrific work," and eventually, they do start to take social praise as a good thing.
Name: Lauretta Murdock, executive director and founder, The Mosaic School and The Mosaic Foundation for Autism Inc. in Wantagh
What they do: Private school offering one-on-one learning for people with severe autism and other profound disabilities
Employees: 7 full time; 3 part time
Revenue range: $250,000 to $310,000