For any parent, the challenges of raising a child with special needs are overwhelming, particularly without a community supportive of those challenges. The Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA) grew out of two couples’ needs to offer their children with autism the best education possible. One of these parents was Alison Webb.


Alison cofounded VIA to educate her own children and other children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and VIA is blazing a trail for local, national, and international understanding and support of those living with autism. VIA has received wide recognition for its successful student instruction employing applied behavior analysis and evidence-based learning.


Founded in the fall of 1996, VIA opened its doors with just four students. Today, the Institute serves hundreds of families in Charlottesville, and it serves as a teaching model for other communities throughout the country.


It was when we were living in San Francisco that things really came to a head for us. I have two children with autism, Harry & Georgia. At the time they were five and three and we were just about to send Harry to school. I thought, “We have the money, let’s send him to private school.” But here’s the thing about private schools, they don’t take kids with special needs. The public schools were awful. I couldn’t send my son to a place without trained teachers who had experience working effectively with kids with autism. Bernie and I are both from Charlottesville, and it’s always felt like home. When we got here, we still weren’t impressed with what the public schools could offer our kids. They had a teacher’s aid who was paid part-time, $8 an hour, but she wasn’t someone trained specifically for children with autism.


When you’re struggling as a parent, the people you want to talk to are the people having the same experience as you, the people that understand you. They’re the only ones who know what it’s like. One of VIA’s original founders was in our support group. Donna Cattell-Gordon did all the research and learned about the most progressive forms of teaching for children with autism. I used to call Donna every day, sometimes more than once. We relied heavily on each other for support. All the parents in that group were frustrated by the lack of assistance the public schools could provide our children. It just wasn’t enough. We used to talk about a place that we could send our kids to that would comprehensively take care of their needs. We didn’t think it was possible.

“When you’re struggling as a parent, the people you want to talk to are the people having the same experience as you, the people that understand you. They’re the only ones who know what it’s like.”


I knew these two guys that had started an all-girls middle school in Charlottesville. It was called the Village School and as soon as we became aware of what they were doing, this is when we really started talking about a school for our kids. I kept thinking, “We can’t start a school…” And then I thought, “Well why not?!”. We went and talked to the Village School’s founders and I told them what we wanted to do. I said, “What do you do first?” They explained the process, and said it only took them six months to start the school. We knew then that we had to move forward and so we got to work. What was great was that the founders of the Village School had rented this space that they weren’t using, attached to the Village School. They told us, “Do whatever you want with it. Use it however you like and leave whenever you need to leave.” They let us move in there with a completely open lease agreement which was a real blessing looking back. So in the spring of ’96, we started a school, and that school became VIA.


We started with our own four kids, ages 7, 6, 5 and 4. But that soon changed. Our biggest obstacle was that we were growing our students so quickly that we kept outgrowing our spaces. We went from the Village School space, to this cool old house on Park Street, to where we are now.


All that growth was a real indicator to us that VIA was working. It was obvious that not just we, but other parents, other families, were desperate to provide their kids with another alternative to the public schools. When parents started seeing children making improvement at VIA, word spread and classrooms grew. We never worried about failing, but there were early challenges. Looking back I was so incredibly naïve about things. But failing? It wasn’t an option. Bills and funding were the biggest challenges. One of the largest hurdles that we didn’t anticipate as a new school was being properly licensed with the Department of Education. If you aren’t compliant with state laws, you can be immediately shut down, and we had been operating without one. Whoops.


At the time, David Gordon, a co-founder whose son Daniel was one of the first four kids, was working with us and looking back, thank god he was with us. He took a year off from working at his job at UVA to help out with VIA. The kind of guy that got in at 7AM and worked until 9PM. When we were faced with this Department of Education crisis, David put his head down and put together the most beautiful, formal licensing application. Color-coded. Hundreds of pages. Pristine. This compliance officer comes in, reviews David’s work and the school, and gives us a three-year certification, which is unheard of. Normally, you would get a one-year certification, 2 years max. That’s what’s standard. This was a huge moment for us, and a major validation that we were on the right track. It felt like we’d made it.


VIA’s teaching model is based on the widely accepted method of applied behavioral analysis and evidence based learning. However, we stay on top of current research and teaching methods so that we stay up to date. If the data and peer reviewed research show that wearing striped shirts will increase learning, we’ll do that!


The basic principle is reinforcement and the idea that that which is reinforced will reoccur over time. We only use positive reinforcement. The philosophy is pretty simple stuff. Because there is such a diverse group of children with ASD, the needs of the children can range. Some struggle with spoken language. Some struggle with communication. Some struggle with social skills. Potty training, haircuts, dentist visits, community outings, waiting appropriately- it is such an enormous range of needs and challenges.


There is nothing like the feeling of working with a kid who for weeks screams everytime he picks up a crayon, and then watch him manage to pick up a crayon without screaming. It’s absolutely incredible. We also help teach kids about situations outside of the classroom or the home. If you don’t have a child with autism, this might not even occur to you, but places like the dentist’s office can be incredibly traumatizing to a child with autism. So, even before he or she has an appointment, we take them there to acclimate them to the environment. Even if it’s just to put one foot in front of the door, step inside, and then go home. We tell them how amazing and great they were, and we’ll keep doing it until they are in the chair and getting their teeth cleaned. No matter how long it takes. Honestly, I think the way we teach is the only way to teach. Everyone can learn from it. Autism or not. The basic formula of it is reinforcement, repetition, positive reinforcement and, of course, patience.


To serve people as long as they need our services. Period. Right now we are serving people from 2-28 years old. They are everywhere on the spectrum and have a huge diversity of needs. Our families come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. We have kids coming from trailer homes and other families that are very well-to-do. Our only limitation right now is the physical size of our facilities, and because of that we have a waiting list. Every child is paid for through the state, and we have the public schools sending us kids that need our assistance. We have a great relationship with the Charlottesville-Albemarle public school system. As of today we have close to 60 kids enrolled at VIA, and 70 kids as a part of our outreach program. The outreach program is for non-local children, usually much younger than school age. This number doesn’t seem like a lot, but this kid has a family and now his parents have a support group. You’re talking hundreds and hundreds of people.

Our goal is replication sites. Providing a model for other places to adopt the same tenets of VIA. And to serve as many families as possible.

I am so proud of VIA and how far we have come. It’s like my baby!

“Honestly, I think the way we teach is the only way to teach. Everyone can learn from it. Autism or not. The basic formula of it is reinforcement, repetition, positive reinforcement and, of course, patience.”


Adult services are the new frontier for us now. This is still very new, but the downside of attending VIA is that school stops at age 22. But autism doesn’t. It doesn’t disappear, and so we’ve developed adult programming to teach life skills, social skills, and independence. We want to make sure our students are getting out into the community and being involved as productive and happy members.


I don’t know what it is about this town, but I never felt like I had friends like I do in Charlottesville when I lived anywhere else. Mark Lorenzoni and Cynthia Lorenzoni are our next-door neighbors and they were incredibly encouraging, from the beginning, of us starting the school. Mark would have some of our kids from the school come and work for a few hours in his shop. Marty Block was also a great advocate of VIA. He taught adaptive PE at UVA and he asked us if his students could come out and work with VIA kids which was just so amazing for them. The support of the community was enormous and I specifically remember when we had our first big fundraiser, I realized we had the support of Charlottesville. I walked into the room and just started bawling. There were so many people there. I didn’t expect it and hadn’t imagined that it would get that kind of attendance. This support has continued throughout VIA’s success. Last year marked VIA’s 20th birthday. We were officially founded on March 26, 1996, so we are 21 this year, which means we can drink now.

“I don’t know what it is about this town, but I never felt like I had friends like I do in Charlottesville when I lived anywhere else.”