Having an autistic child is a challenge, but Scottsdale resident Andrea Weck-Robertson has turned her experiences with her daughter Lexie into groundbreaking gains in the Arizona educational system. Lexie’s Law, signed in 2009, is named after her daughter and allows corporations to get dollar-for-dollar tax credits when donating money for scholarships for children with autism, which helps keep school choice alive for parents wishing to send their special needs kids to private schools with more specialized training and one-on-one attention. Keep reading for how Lexie’s Law came about and to hear five reasons why Weck-Robertson, 40, plans on staying in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’m a native, born in Mesa and raised in Tempe. I went to McClintock High School and Mesa Community College, and I bought a beauty salon with my family. I worked there for 16 years and retired to have my children. The salon just had its 23rd year — it’s called Champs Salon in Tempe. I was an aesthetician by trade in skincare, and I was also a nail technician. My father had a beauty salon growing up, and I went in as a high school senior to beauty school.
What tips do you have for at-home beauty?
Follow a regimen — a cleanser, a tone, a moisturizer, and always sunscreen in Arizona. Don’t leave your house without it.
Tell me about the beginnings of Lexie’s Law.
Lexie, who is 11 now, originally started in the Scottsdale school system. She’s severely autistic, and she has a touch of cerebral palsy and mental retardation. She does not speak at all — she’s on the lower end of the autism spectrum, and at the time, they didn’t have many resources in the public school system to help these children. As a parent, I decided I wanted to find the right school for her with the right teaching abilities. I found a private school, and I had to look for funding. I applied for a voucher program 6 years ago because the state doesn’t pay for you to go to a private school. I took her out of the public school system on a wing and a prayer, and they accepted her, and she got a scholarship. 4 years ago, the Arizona voucher program Lexie was using was abolished, and that’s where Lexie’s Law came from. There were 500 students that were utilizing this voucher program, so Jan Brewer signed Lexie’s Law, which was a way to fund those 547 students.
What was wrong with the public school she was in?
It was 16 kids in one classroom, one teacher, one aide, with all sorts of different disabilities. How can you teach all of those children one style of teaching, when they all need something else? It was more like glorified baby-sitting, which was scary because there wasn’t enough help in the classroom.
What was appealing about the private school?
The private school had Play ABA teaching, where they did everything over and over again until that child learned. It was in a much smaller setting in a much smaller classroom, one adult per one to two children. They really get to know their students and know how they learn. If they need to take them aside to teach them something, they can, in a much smaller environment.
How did you become involved with getting Lexie’s Law passed?
I went to court with the Institute of Justice, who wrote the law, as a parent, to say, ‘This is why my daughter should be in private school. She made leaps and bounds. She was in the public school system for 2 years and made little, if no, progress, and in 1 year at private school, she was social. She wanted to sit with us, she wanted to feed herself, she wanted you to read her a book. She was learning her colors.’ She’s still non-verbal, but she’s learning sign language so I can actually communicate with her, something the public school system never even tried to do. You would have speech or occupational therapy maybe once a week, or maybe once every other week. With the private school, you’d have speech twice a week, occupational therapy twice a week and physical therapy twice a week. So, there’s more intervention, more help to get them to learn the things that they learn. After that first year, I said I have to fight for parents’ choice. I knew she needed more help than she was getting.
The Institute for Justice took us and other parents under their wing. Lexie and I kind of became their spokesperson for parents’ choice, so I have become completely involved in parents’ choice and helping all special needs-sponsored children that need someone to help them choose, not just someone in an office who’s never met them. It’s about letting that parent have a voice to say, ‘This is what my child needs.’ Arizona Institute for Justice came up with this tax credit and found a company to give the first $300,000 that funded all the children, including Lexie. Now she’s at a private school I feel she’ll be at for the next 10 years.
What is her school like now?
St. Dominic Savio started off as a little school with two rooms behind a church, and now we’re having these fundraisers every year to expand the school. We got a bigger building with our funding last year. Now we need playground equipment and a bigger cover. We’re just growing the school so more children can get what she got out of it. There are about 16 students there now, and they’re all on the autism spectrum.
What are your goals for the future?
My goals for the future are to make sure her school continues to get the funding needed, whether it be playground equipment or books or teachers, just to have the funding they need to keep making it a better place for her. You can do anything for your special child. That’s my main goal in life.
What are people’s biggest misconceptions about autism?
Some of the biggest misconceptions are that these kids can’t learn, and they can’t become anything. With the right teaching, they can do anything. My daughter has grown leaps and bounds, and she talks louder than all four of my other children, without a voice. She knows what she wants, she can get it, and she can learn anything. She communicates with her iPad, and she’ll say, ‘I want this. I need this.’ If all the kids are fighting in the middle of the room, she’ll make one of her noises, and they’ll all stop and say, ‘Oh! What do you need?’ She’s taught all of us to be more compassionate and better people.
What are some of the warning signs parents should look for in regards to autism?
One of the signs is if their child is slower in development, in sitting, in playing with toys, in looking at you in the eyes, in listening. Not making their milestones, such as 6 months they’re supposed to be sitting, or at 9 months they’re supposed to be crawling, that sort of thing. Some kids do develop slower, but pay attention.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about autisim?
Doctors said, ‘She’ll never crawl, she’ll never walk, she’ll never feed herself,’ but I got down on the floor and taught her, ‘Move your legs like this,’ and prompted her to feed herself. They can learn anything, it’s just teaching them in a different way than everybody else learns. It’s just a very loving, compassionate way of teaching them.
For people who want to learn more about autism, what resources would you recommend?