McLean’s fully accredited school aimed at helping students with autism spectrum disorders.
Pathways Academy is a year-round, therapeutic day school developed to meet the social, sensory, psychological, and educational needs of children and adolescents ages 6 through 22 with autism spectrum disorders.
Our students may struggle with social pragmatic (social communication) difficulties, sensory challenges, and difficulty meeting typical school expectations. Students may also have co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses, including depression, social and academic anxiety, and other disorders.
Some students at Pathways Academy may have specific learning disabilities and challenges with attention and processing speed. Our students tend to have average intelligence scores, although significant gaps in knowledge and delay in skill development are common. Students often have difficulty integrating their experiences and interactions and drawing expected inferences. Reduced ability in these areas often leads to feelings of frustration, limited success, and low self-esteem.
Comprehensive Plan for Reopening
With the health and safety of Pathway Academy’s students, families, faculty, and staff in mind, school leadership has developed a comprehensive plan that includes learning models for in-person, hybrid, and remote instruction.
Pathways Academy utilizes a consistent implementation of positive behavioral supports and natural consequences to manage student behavior. Our staff offer ongoing support and structure, teach to student strengths, use high-impact visual aids, and provide frequent positive encouragement.
Pathways Academy is best suited to students who are:
- Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and desire a school setting that meets their needs
- Struggling with previous negative school experiences and instead are hoping to enjoy attending school with peers who are working on similar challenges
- Seeking a gentle and individualized approach to education with social pragmatic, sensory, and therapeutic supports throughout the school day
Pathways Academy’s core curriculum includes social pragmatics (social communication), sensory integration, and a therapeutic environment.
Our classrooms have a maximum of four students. With a staffing ratio of 1:2 (staff to students) and embedded 15-minute sensory breaks each hour, students are supported as they work to manage their internal resources throughout the school day.
Our low-stress learning environment, where students can progress at their own pace, allows even the most anxious students a comfortable place to learn.
Academics at Pathways Academy are individualized to take student strengths, abilities, and preferences into account. Students are encouraged to work at their own pace.
Social pragmatics skill development is supported by all school staff throughout the day, taking advantage of abundant natural learning opportunities as they arise. Ongoing access to clinicians and specialists is available to all students as needed.
Pathways Academy is fully approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Pathways in the News
Read more about how Pathways Academy meets the needs of students with autism.
Mission & Philosophy
Pathways Academy provides a safe and comfortable learning environment for students with autism spectrum and related disorders. We consider every interaction a learning opportunity, so rather than an applied behavioral program, Pathways Academy focuses on intensive social-pragmatic learning and natural consequences.
All behaviors are communicative and our staff is trained to look critically and objectively at behavior to determine what the child is trying to communicate.
Students are taught coping and self-regulation strategies directly and receive ongoing guided practice in putting their new skills to use. They are encouraged to use their language and developing social skills to resolve conflicts, instead of utilizing behaviors that may be disruptive or off-putting to peers.
Students are taught to find appropriate avenues for meeting needs and defusing strong emotions that may not be expected in a school setting.
Pathways Academy is a year-round, 216-day program. Our summer session is not a separate program, it is considered part of the school year. The school runs from 8:30am to 2:30pm four days per week, and on Wednesdays dismissal is at 12:30pm.
We follow a predictable schedule, which is posted daily in each classroom. All class periods are 45 minutes in length, after which students have a 15-minute sensory integration break. During this time, students work on specific individualized education program (IEP) sensory integration objectives.
Pathways Academy is committed to providing a supportive environment in which students can learn, develop, and practice social pragmatic (social communication) skills, both with staff members and with one another. Social pragmatics is taught as a core subject and is integrated throughout the school day.
Pragmatics instruction includes teaching skills such as asking for help, listening, following directions, friendship skills, conversation skills, joining in conversations, playing a game, asking a favor, and giving and receiving a compliment. Students work on developing skills in the areas of sharing, apologizing, and dealing with feelings such as recognizing and expressing emotions, accepting the opinions of others, expressing concerns, and dealing with the feelings of others.
Students also learn coping strategies and social-emotional regulation strategies and are taught methods to improve their understanding and expression of non-verbal communication, to deal with anxiety, and to use skills for coping with stress successfully. Field trips into the community provide students the opportunity to practice skills in other settings.
While the students may view their embedded sensory breaks as playtime or free time, they are learning how to use sensory activities and strategies to adjust their energy and arousal levels to be ready for learning when the next class starts. We consider sensory integration to be a vital component of our program.
Occupational therapists develop individualized sensory plans and provide sensory integration training and support in the occupational therapy gym, classroom, and throughout the school environment. All Pathways Academy staff members are trained to assist students with sensory integration activities so support is always available during the school day.
Academics and Learning Environment
Pathways Academy’s therapeutic school environment provides low-distraction work areas in sensory-friendly classrooms, preferential seating away from distractions and close to the teacher, preparation of students for transitions and changes in routines, support during transition times, and earphones for all equipment with audio functions.
The school has a low student-teacher ratio for supervision throughout the day and a consistent, predictable schedule for students.
Our learning environment is designed to support students who may struggle with attention/impulse control, emotional and sensory modulation, frustration tolerance, and meeting the social expectations of a typical classroom setting. We provide support for sensory break activities with carpeting on floors, dimmer switches on lights, and availability of incandescent or fluorescent lighting.
With an understanding of how overwhelming classroom instruction can be for our students, teachers break down instructions into steps, share information in manageable chunks, keep verbal instructions simple, and use positive reinforcement and supports on a consistent and continued basis. Expectations are individualized to the needs of each student and can be adjusted in an ongoing manner as needed.
Teachers also adapt and modify classroom material and amount of work assigned, including reducing paper and pencil tasks, providing taped or highlighted texts and outlines, a scribe, and the division of work into short, sequential steps with opportunities for reinforcement, and offer ongoing encouragement and support.
Students are encouraged to utilize sensory items and strategies within the classroom and to take sensory breaks when needed.
We address daily living and self-care skills through a variety of classes and occupational therapy services.
Students can receive an occupational therapy evaluation to determine sensory, motor, and self-care needs. Many students receive weekly occupational therapy services.
All students receive instruction and assistance throughout the day as needed in sensory integration self-care, and students are supported in choosing and utilizing appropriate sensory tools to meet their self-care needs.
Students have weekly transition/life skills classes in which they learn self-help and daily living skills, such as safety measures, consumer math, simple meal preparation, self-care, personal hygiene, folding laundry, and various household chores. Students also learn about the importance of coming to school and working hard to be successful.
All students also have a weekly health class in which they learn skills, including nutrition, hygiene, and safety, as well as the social pragmatic aspect of the skills required for daily living.
In the weekly culinary arts class—a favorite among students—kitchen and meal preparation skills are taught.
Weekly community outings offer opportunities to build and strengthen social pragmatics and daily living skills and to help generalize these skills across multiple settings. These outings provide opportunities for students to increase their comfort level in the community while developing skills to improve functional independence in settings such as the grocery store, ballpark, public garden, museum, restaurant, and more.
Transition Planning and Vocational Learning
At Pathways Academy, transition planning is individualized for each student and incorporated into our core curriculum. Staff members work with students and their IEP teams to develop a transition plan and work on pre-vocational and career skills.
Many of the most critical skills required for any vocation are social. Social pragmatics skills are addressed and supported throughout the school day by all school staff and pre-vocational skills are addressed in various forms in all classes.
If determined to be appropriate by the student’s IEP team, staff can assist in exploring dual-enrollment options and can support the process.
In transition/life skills classes, students explore the educational and skill-based requirements of various roles and identify experiences and interests that will help prepare them for the work world. Post-secondary and vocational options for education are examined in groups and individually.
In social pragmatics, health, and transition/life skills classes, there is a specific focus on pre-vocational topics and skills. Examples include, but are not limited to, understanding and accepting work times of day, sustaining attention to tasks, independently recognizing feelings of anxiety and frustration, taking part in non-preferred tasks, maintaining a positive attitude, asking for help when needed, and working independently whenever possible. Students learn and practice accepting feedback and suggestions, demonstrating social niceties, understanding various forms of authority, and exploring students’ strengths and challenges.
Students also work on demonstrating self-advocacy skills (i.e., indicating preferences, asking for accommodations). By identifying desirable vocations, students can explore their pre-vocational skills by comparing their current skill set to those required by the job. Students are taught work skills such as the concept of on the job training, interviewing skills, resume writing, planning for transportation, meals, and attire, time management, the importance of being prompt, etc.
Pathways Academy staff members aid students in identifying community and volunteer experiences to pursue outside of school that will help build knowledge, skills, and valuable experience. Many students participate in community service projects within the school and when possible, on the McLean campus. Through community service work, students learn about the importance of service to others and the need for giving back to the community.
Access to ongoing clinical support is a hallmark of the services offered at Pathways Academy. Students do not need to wait for a weekly appointment to access a clinician. Instead, clinical staff members are always available to prioritize students’ needs.
Pathways Academy promotes a variety of interventions such as occupational therapy, sensory integration, life and transition skills, speech and language therapy, social pragmatics classes, coping and self-regulation strategies, social-emotional support, de-escalation and crisis intervention, and academic support to help students integrate their experiences in a useful way.
Throughout the school day, clinicians are accessible to students to assist with these skills and strategies and to help students process events or issues as needed. We understand that supporting a student around social-emotional needs often takes precedence over academics. Therefore, all staff members are trained and able to assist students with social-emotional processing.
At Pathways Academy, we work together with parents and guardians as an integral part of ensuring student success. Our staff members collaborate with families to provide a strong message of direction and support.
Pathways Academy’s clinicians and educators are available throughout the day via telephone and email, and regular communication between families and staff is highly encouraged. We believe that an open and constant flow of communication promotes the highest level of continuity of care.
Pathways Academy offers many events for families. A Back to School Night is held annually so that parents and guardians can visit their child’s classroom and meet with staff.
We also hold two informational Parent Advisory Group meetings each school year. Our Parent Coffee Hour is scheduled several times throughout the school year, providing the chance for families to meet one another, as well as another opportunity to interact with school staff members.
Pathways Academy accepts students on a rolling basis. Admission is eligible for students whose needs match the supports and services of the school program. If space is available, there are no admission deadlines, though early application is encouraged.
Parents of potential students should contact us to set up a meeting with the admissions coordinator to tour the school and learn more about the program. Children who have been referred by school districts are eligible to visit as well. Two admissions visits are required for most applicants.
Pathways Academy staff may also be available to observe potential students in their current school placement in addition to or in place of an admissions visit. Supporting materials from schools and treatment providers are essential for admissions decisions.
For further information, please contact:
Laura D. Mead, MSEd, Educational Administrator