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ARLINGTON, Va. (WUSA9) -- A highly-praised program that helps middle school students with autism is on the chopping block in Arlington County, Va.

It's a program that helps 13-year-old Isaiah Paley Whitman who attends Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Isaiah has high functioning autism, or what used to be called Asperger syndrome. He is an avid reader, loves the New Yorker Magazine and anything that has to do with history. He's exceptionally bright when it comes to social studies or literature, however lacking in social skills.

"He's got a disparity between his intellectual capability which is phenomenal, and his ability to just sort of navigate the routines of everyday life in school," said his mother, Julia Paley.

In 2010, Arlington County Public Schools launched the Autism Program for middle school students that parents rave about.

"Practically, universally, the parents think it's a breath of fresh air," so much better than the way it used to be, with only teachers who were not trained or didn't understand the behavioral differences that come with autism, said Paley.

The program has five teachers providing two separate classes on social skills and instructional studies for the students with autism. It also currently has 12 assistants who float between mainstream classes to provide additional support when needed.

The new plan could cut seven of those 12 positions and save $271,000. Paley and other parents say it would make harder for their students to participate in regular classrooms with their peers who are not in special education.

Paley explained that Isaiah has difficulties writing, keeping his tasks organized and understanding the social cues in a classroom. She said the assistants help with all of those things and more.

"They are teaching them how to be independent and more and more how to act in the mainstream way, so that in the future, these kids are used to this kind of environment and have been taught in it and hopefully go onto higher education and get jobs," said Paley.

Paley says the program also helps other students by teaching them how to be respectful and welcoming to all people, especially those that are different.

She says by cutting seven of the 12 positions, the program as it is would be dismantled and not nearly as effective.

She and other parents plan to protest the cuts at the next Arlington County School Board public hearing on May 8 at 7 p.m. The school board is expected to make a final decision on May 22. The parents have set up a petition with more information (https://www.change.org/petitions/don-t-cut-the-autism-program-for-middle-and-high-school-students)

The Arlington Public Schools School Board will approve the final budget on May 22.

Written by Peggy Fox

A highly-praised autism program is on the chopping block in Arlington County.

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