Merril Oliver's son, now in seventh grade, could read at a third-grade level when he was 3 years old. His favorite bedtime story when he was 4 was his mother's college astronomy book.
But the boy also had trouble interacting with others. "He'll just barrel through a crowd, bump into people and not say excuse me," said Oliver, who asked that her son's name not be used.
For the past three years, the boy, diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism, has been attending the Kennedy Krieger School in Baltimore.
Now, he is one several students with Asperger Syndrome who have enrolled at the Norbel School as part of a new partnership between the county school system and the private school in Elkridge, which teaches youngsters in prekindergarten through grade 12 who have learning and/or language disabilities.
To qualify for placement at Norbel, the public school pupils in the program had to be in fifth through seventh grades, have an average to gifted IQ and have been showing a lack of success with individual education plans that had been put in place for the children.
The idea is for the pupils to attend Norbel for 1 1/2 to two years, long enough to amass a toolbox of skills that will allow them to cope in public school and in the real world, said Eric Isselhardt, Norbel's headmaster.
Students with Asperger tend to be highly intelligent and do well at school, but they have problems with social interactions and with transitioning from one activity to another, Isselhardt said.
The curriculum at Norbel, which focuses on human relationship skills, seemed ideal for this sort of learner, he said. The school already was enrolling students with Asperger Syndrome, said Kryz Renzi, Norbel's marketing coordinator.
In Carmen Beecher and Eileen Grossman's seventh-grade classroom, for example, the daily schedule written on the front board showed that 45 minutes would be devoted to what the school calls affective learning.
During that time, the teachers and students would focus on social relationships, decision-making and other nonacademic skills necessary for getting along in life. Even before the 45- minute session started, Grossman informed the pupils that they had five minutes to finish what they were doing and clean up their desks.
Then she handed out sheets of paper with lists of "feeling words," including apologetic, shocked, indifferent and disgusted. As part of the lesson, Beecher discussed actions and relationships - how a child might react if a brother lost a prized leather jacket, or how a grandmother would feel if a grandchild failed to show up to help carry groceries.
Some students need to learn how to "get" a joke, since they don't pick up on the inflections and visual cues that make something funny. Students learn about phrases such as "buffalo wings" and "cute as a button," which are hard for students with Aspberger, who tend to be very highly literal, to understand.
All of this is part of the standard curriculum at Norbel, a school with a student-to-staff- ratio of 6 to 1.
Oliver said she and her husband learned about Norbel through Ron Caplan, who is in charge of community and alternative programs for Howard County's Department of Special Education. It was clear that the boy no longer needed to be at Kennedy Krieger, but he was not quite ready for public school.
"His autism has been very well-addressed, and he was now in a position where he had many more coping skills socially and he could be in a less restricted environment with kids who are functioning socially on a higher level," Oliver said.
She said even this early in the school year, she is very happy with the program. She recalled that when her son was in third grade, at a nonpublic special-education facility. The class was asked to read a passage, and then say what they thought the author was thinking when he wrote the story.
The boy's reply was that he could not possibly know what the author was thinking.
"The wonderful thing about Norbel," the boy's mother said, "is that they understand that. That question would not be marked wrong and used against him. The question would be asked in a very different way."