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After The Fires, North Bay School For Autistic Children Seeks A New Normal

Lee Romney/KQED
Raj Sodhi helps his son, Jaco, with a piano lesson at the home of a family friend. It’s the fourth place they’ve stayed since the North Bay fires destroyed their home — and Jaco’s school, the Anova Center for Education, Oct. 21, 2017.

For the 120 students at Santa Rosa’s Anova Center for Education, the past two months have been tough.

The fire that raged through wine country burned the school down, and nine families lost their houses, too. This school for high-functioning kids with autism was a home away from home for them. One 12-year-old boy takes us on the journey to recovery, for him and his school.

Unsettled

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On a mid-October morning, not long after the Tubbs Fire destroyed his home and school, Jaco Sodhi sits down to play the piano at the Santa Rosa home of family friends. He, his twin sister, and his parents are staying here – for now. It’s the fourth place they’ve landed since the disaster upended their lives.

Jaco’s playing from memory because all his sheet music burned. His dad, Raj Sodhi, helps him work through a piece of music. It helps them feel a little bit normal.

The family had to evacuate their own home not far from here in the early hours of October 9. Jaco’s dad, who plays jazz, loaded his double bass into the family minivan. His mom, Lucia Cascio, a portrait photographer, grabbed her camera bag. And his sister, Sofia, managed to take her trombone.

But Jaco ran out of time. He left without much besides his Star Wars shirt — the one that’s got Darth Vader on it playing baseball with a light saber. He said it all happened too fast.

“My sister said, ‘We are evacuating, Jaco, just get out of your dang bed’ — yeah my sister was cruel that way — and I was able to grab, literally my toothbrush, toothpaste and only one pair of clothes.”

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Jaco’s pretty unhappy about that. The family thought they were just being cautious, that they’d be able to return soon. But their house, and everything in it, burned down.

“If I could have grabbed more,” Jaco said, “I probably would have grabbed all my fencing gear, which costs like hundreds of dollars.”

Jaco’s got big brown eyes, braces and a very rational mind. He was diagnosed with autism when he was three-and-a-half years old. Kids on the autism spectrum don’t tend to do well with big changes — and a lot is up in the air for him right now.

He puts on a good face, but he’s clearly struggling with his feelings. He talks about riding an imaginary lion into his devastated neighborhood — to chase off looters. And he tells his mom — three times — how mad he is “that I was able to grab, basically nothing.”

The rental housing market here is so tight that Jaco’s parents have even been talking about leaving the county. Jaco said “necessity beats friends” so he’ll go if he has to. But his mom said the upheaval is taking a toll.

She explains how low he seemed after two recent tours of other schools for autistic kids in San Mateo and Contra Costa counties, saying the thought of changing was “heavy for him.”

Jaco interrupts. “We’re probably not gonna change schools,” he asks, “are we?”

Cascio tries to soothe him.

“We’re trying really hard to stay here, right?” she said. “That’s what mommy and daddy are trying really hard to do.”

“Got it,” Jaco said, sighing heavily. “That’s what I was just waiting to hear, that we’re actually trying to stay and we’re not just trying to move away.”

Transformation

To understand just how hard this is, it helps to know what things were like for Jaco before Anova. He spent kindergarten, first and second grades at a public school, but he struggled.

Cascio said there were instances when Jaco was aggressive with his peers, “pulling down the shelves in the library where they were trying to keep him away from the other kids, and it was just getting worse and worse.”

The whole time, she and her husband were pushing to find the right classroom environment and behavior plan for him at his public school, but Jaco started having suicidal thoughts. And his outbursts were regular.

Sofia, Jaco’s sister, said it was hard to see how misunderstood he was.

Kids would approach her, “not as Sofia but, like, ‘You’re Jaco’s sister,” she said. “‘You’re the one who’s related to the guy that pulled my hair’ or something. It’s like: No! He’s Jaco. He’s not just a hair-puller. He can learn stuff.”

When Jaco got to Anova, everything changed. He speaks softly when he talks about it, gazing down at the table. It’s clearly painful.

“They weren’t treating me as if I was a bad person,” he said, “for like the first time in a while … It hasn’t happened in a while for me.”

Anova’s students come from as far as 80 miles away. Like Jaco, most are referred by their public school districts, which cover the costs. When Jaco got in, he skipped a grade. And his outbursts? They dwindled to almost nothing.

The kids can leave class whenever they need a break. There are quiet rooms for calming down, rooms where they can jump on a trampoline or swing, to help stimulate their vestibular systems. Plus, counselors to talk to. And there’s a therapy dog, named Larry.

Jaco loves his Larry breaks. Sometimes, he grabs some of Larry’s toys and plays with him. He gives him belly rubs. And he likes to “just flop his ears around.”

“Most of the time he just sleeps on his bed,” Jaco adds, “which hopefully wasn’t, which probably might have been burned in the fire.” He pauses. “Hopefully wasn’t.”

Finding Temporary Space

Andrew Bailey is Anova’s CEO and director of educational services. He also co-founded the school 17 years ago. As a therapist, he had come to realize that high-functioning kids with autism, the ones who often test at grade level, were falling through the cracks.

“All of us really started understanding that the students like the ones we serve are not misbehaving because they’re bad or manipulative, and that is a game-changer for our students,” he said in an interview at the school’s administrative offices, which didn’t burn.

“They’re understood and they’re addressed with sensory sensitivity.”

Bailey knows that sensitivity will be more important than ever when classes start up again.

“They do understand the dangers in life,” he said, so when something like a fire comes along, the stresses in the students’ lives become exacerbated.

The school’s therapists know all that, and when school gets back in session, Bailey said, they’ll be ready to help students like Jaco assess how they’re feeling and calm down using techniques such as “breathing and imagination and rationalization.”

Anova was able to lease extra space in its administrative building, and a suite of rooms in a new wing is buzzing with teachers and therapists finishing lesson plans and ordering supplies.

The older students will come here. The rest will be split between two other schools in the county with classrooms to spare.

The school’s team of therapists will split up too, so each site will be staffed all day. The only rover will be Larry, the golden retriever Labrador mix. He’ll make his rounds with Principal Heidi Adler. And yes, his bed did burn. But he seems to be doing ok. He sits on his hind legs and gives Bailey a hug. Then, on command, he speaks and executes a perfect twirl.

School Starts

Just before Halloween, school starts up again. Jaco’s class and two others are in borrowed space in Healdsburg for now. A counselor spent the morning talking to students about what they’ve been through. Now they’re making art.

A few kids listen to music on headphones. One hums. Jaco sits near the front of the classroom, drawing a picture of a dog that looks a lot like his. She’s been staying with a pet sitter since the fire, and Jaco really misses her.

Anova staff tried to replicate the students’ old classroom as much as possible, down to the posters on the wall and the type of box that holds the headphones. All the Chromebooks and textbooks, every single pencil and paper folder, everything had to be replaced.

Outside, the kids mill around in the unfamiliar parking lot, waiting for a ride home. Jaco’s teacher, Alicia Honn, said the new space is an adjustment.

“We had more tables in the back so they could spread out, and a nice library, and the nook in the back with big bean-bag chairs,” she said.

But for these kids with autism, just getting back to routine is a huge relief.

“You could just feel the positivity from all of them, just seeing their friends and seeing their teachers,” she said, “and just being like, ‘ahhhhhh, normalcy.’”

A New Home

In a stroke of luck, Jaco’s family finds a rental house through a friend. And it happens to be in Healdsburg, just a few miles from Jaco’s temporary school.

He and Sofia celebrate their 12th birthdays there in mid-November. By early December, they’re just starting to get settled. The kids have new beds. And the landlord has loaned the family some furniture, a big TV, and plenty of games. Jaco’s playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed when his father Raj Sodhi tells him his screen time is over.

“Nooooooooooo,” he protests, before helping to set the table.

He and Sofia show off the library of books – also on temporary loan from the landlord. But it’s been hard to settle into a new routine. Jaco’s mom and dad have longer commutes now, because their old office was smoke damaged. They’re overwhelmed with fire recovery: meeting with builders, dealing with insurance, hunting for a new car to replace the burned one. With so little time, they had to cancel Jaco’s weekly meetings with an outside psychologist.

Over dinner, Jaco said he’s warmed up to his temporary school. He likes the playground.

But he may not be playing there much longer. Anova could reopen at the old location as soon as next month — in portable classrooms, while the school awaits a full rebuild.

Meanwhile, some things in Jaco’s life are already back to normal – like old-fashioned twin rivalry.

Ogling a shelf full of video games, Jaco boasts that he’s the only one in the house who knows how to work the home entertainment system.

“Not anymore,” Sofia practically yells with happy defiance. “I figured it out.”

“Wait, what?” Jaco stammers, foiled. “Do you even know how, you know how to turn on the TV?”

Her yes leaves him deflated. But then he’s on to the next thing, chattering away.

A version of this story originally aired on KALW’s Crosscurrents.