Equipping Neurodivergent Students for Success

The following is a letter written by Karyn MacVean. Karen has two children attending Science Prep Academy, a program of the Neurodiversity Education Research Center. At Neurodiversity in STEM at TERC, we believe education should change to fit the learner, not the other way around. This story is a wonderful example of the impact on student confidence and success when schools do that.

I write to share my story about Science Prep Academy, a specially designed middle and high school for neurodivergent children.

My family found a school with high expectations for our children, a figure-it-out attitude, and an evidence-based approach. You might not know how unique it is for children with autism to have a school that prepares them to be successful in the classroom and to support their career aspirations, no matter what those aspirations are. Science Prep Academy works with the student and the parents and creates a plan to make it happen.

To understand what Science Prep Academy means to my children and our family, you have to understand how many times other schools told us that “the world isn’t going to expect much from them”—which was clear from the less than robust curriculum at those schools. Their father and I tried so many schools and filled out so many applications before we found Science Prep Academy in 2020. Until we found this special school, I was close to deciding to homeschool our children, now 13 and 15 years old.

After my son was formally diagnosed at 18 months old, our family officially entered the world of autism and started learning all we could. Our goal was to create an environment at home for our son to thrive and later his sister after she received a diagnosis in the second grade. We are lucky here in Arizona as voters have approved support for families with neurodivergent students, and there are local organizations that showed us where to start and have helped us every step of the way. We have benefited from access to experts, social-emotional and behavioral tools and strategies, and the unique empowerment scholarships from the state to offset the cost of specialized schools.

After my son’s diagnosis, we started learning the acronyms, the therapeutic solutions, and the behavior supports and sought out expert help to train us and work with the children. We started applied behavioral analysis which is positive reinforcement and feedback and learned how to deal with negative behaviors at home. We knew we had found the right school because Science Prep Academy also uses Positive Behavior Support, which is an evidence-based strategy.

After my daughter was diagnosed in the second grade, one of her goals was to read the Harry Potter books. Before she began Science Prep Academy in 6th grade, her school made clear that they couldn’t help her do that. “I thought to myself, there has to be a school; there has to be a solution, right? There may be soft skills and behavioral elements to deal with, but you should be able to teach to them, right?” Now that she is in a school environment that is eager and prepared to make that happen, my daughter, a voracious reader, has read the Harry Potter books and has moved on to other series.

There were so many signs that we had found the right school to help neurodivergent children succeed: small class sizes, behavioral support, and individualized strategies for each child. I remember my first conversation with Science Prep Academy founder and Superintendent Kenneth Mims. The first thing he said was: “we think children with autism have capabilities.”

I can honestly say that I have got two children who are on the college path when not more than three years ago, I was told, well, the world’s not going to expect much from them. It’s night and day.

“In Science Prep, we found an education partner that’s willing to sit down and talk it through, who says we’ll figure it out. My son wants to be in the film industry (skills that were delightfully displayed during a re-enactment of The Scarlet Letter), and my daughter is very artistic and has many different interests, though working with animals has always been one of her interests. Sometimes she says she wants to be a professional dog walker, so we’ll see where she lands.

I am so proud of the way both children have grown at Science Prep Academy, and there are so many little things that made a difference. I like the Pride sheets in particular, where my children list out the positive things that they have done and the things they have learned. We get to see their growth. And it’s measurable, data driven. My children want to learn, so it was important to find the right environment where they can engage confidently.

My children have the ability to become very relevant members of society. They are strong enough, creative enough, and educated enough to contribute and take care of themselves and potentially others.


Karyn MacVean

Science Prep Academy Parent