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One School, Twice Exceptional

How Cajal Academy Fills the Void for Gifted Kids With Special Needs

Article by Shandley McMurray

Photography by Courtesy of Cajal Academy

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

There’s nothing traditional about Cajal Academy, for twice exceptional children (those who are academically gifted and need special education.) Cajal is the school I wish existed when I was young.

I suffer from Ehlers Danlos Syndome (EDS), a multi-systemic genetic disorder affecting my connective tissue. In short, this means my hypermobile joints dislocate and sublux on a frequent basis, leaving me in chronic pain and in need of multiple surgeries. Like many with EDS, I also have dysautonomia (a.k.a. POTS), which affects my blood pressure, heart rate, and gastrointestinal system.

Cajal Academy, which teaches students whose special needs include EDS, could have taught me life skills necessary to improve my strength, stabilize my joints, and manage my POTS. Instead, I suffered from “the most neglected disorder in modern medicine” silently, without a diagnosis or help, until I was almost 30.

At Cajal, bright colors are eschewed in favor of a muted color scheme preferable for those with sensory processing disorders. A vast selection of seating - from medicine balls to Yogibos to pod chairs - fill the classrooms, enticing children to choose the most comfortable option for their various conditions.

A former closet serves as a relaxing craniosacral therapy room, and there are physical and occupational therapy spaces, too. Did I mention there’s a full-time neuropsychologist, occupational therapist, and four physical therapists on staff?

A tween boy greets me, eyes twinkling as he presents his latest project: a mathematically devised model Medieval city. Down the hall, a teen girl sits atop a medicine ball, immediately correcting her posture as a fellow student reminds her not to hyperextend her knees. The occupational therapist directs the students to be mindful of their alignment as they continue to balance.

Not every Cajal student suffers from a connective tissue disease, but they all benefit from the school’s research on how different physiological systems interact. Body positioning, self-correction, and learning to manage things like circulatory shifts that cause brain fog are essential skills. These skills lessen pain and injuries they’ll experience later in life and help them focus on learning.

None of the happy and outgoing children I meet look like they have a disability; their challenges are invisible.  According to Cajal co-founder, Cheryl Viirand, traditional schools tend to accommodate a child’s challenges instead of teaching them to rewire their brains to tackle their struggles. “The brain constantly rewires itself, reallocating resources to the networks needed to perform its most requested skills,” she explains. “The good news is, you can turn that process around and build up those low-lying skills by strategically pinpointing and targeting them.”

A fellow EDS sufferer, Cheryl has two gifted sons with the disorder, among other complex issues. Unable to find a Connecticut-based school offering integrated therapies to help them, Cheryl worked with her kids’ OT, Heather Edwards, to start her own.

A social entrepreneur and former attorney, Cheryl dug into the science on how children learn, socialize, and grow. Alongside Edwards and neuropsychologist Dr. Steven Mattis, she developed protocols to put this science to work in the classroom.

Together, they created a phenomenally effective curriculum, not to mention the world’s first program empowering children with connective tissue disorders. In addition to learning core subjects from five subject specialist teachers, Cajal’s students are taught to self-monitor, self-manage, and self-advocate for their needs.

The secret to the school’s success is in its multi-disciplinary method—melding psychology, neuropsychology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy, as well as regular lessons. This holistic approach to learning is one-of-a-kind. It also means parents won’t have to waste time and money on hundreds of after-school appointments; the children receive the help they need on campus.

Each student receives an individualized program developed with the help of neuropsychological and physical therapy assessments. This includes a toolbox of problem-solving skills to help tackle their specific challenges. For example, a child with writer’s block might do an obstacle course with a teacher to get the ideas flowing. In time, the child will learn to identify cues and manage their issues effectively on their own.

As Cheryl emphasizes, a child needs to feel safe to learn effectively, but until the body is regulated, they can’t feel comfortable. These skills ensure that every child is primed for learning. “We’ve seen kids go from severely behind in a given area to ahead of the grade,” she explains of the curriculum. “And that’s because we’ve identified and built up those low-lying skills.”

Near the end of my visit, Cheryl pauses our interview to help a new student get properly aligned in the reading corner, a task made more challenging by the girl’s loose connective tissues. Cheryl helps another teacher correctly position the Yogibo, a foot stool, and another pillow used to prop up the book, so the girl’s cervical spine is perfectly positioned.

When they’re finished, the girl is comfortable, a weighted blanket draped across her lap to help train her brain to map the new, corrected posture. A soft smile graces her lips as she reads about dinosaurs in a school that finally accepts her differences and celebrates her superpowers.

Q&A with Cheryl Viirand

SM: How does Cajal Academy differ from other special educational schools?

CV: Most special education schools define their cohort based on their disabilities, but we define ours based on their superpowers. All the students here have very high analytical reasoning and creative thinking skills.

The kids are doing standards-based academics, solving real world problems in collaboration with one another, creating projects that have no ceiling to them. There's plenty of room for intellectual growth. We just happen to be teaching them at the same time how to optimize relative to the challenges that they didn't ask for.

SM: How does Cajal help prepare its students for life after school?

CV: We give our students the science and an understanding of the data in their own profiles, so they are empowered to understand and make connections for themselves. We also coach them in strategies to use in the community, at home, in college, and beyond, to manage their differences so they don’t stand in the way of who they want to be. How much more empowering to say, ‘let’s give you a toolbox to be in charge of that now?’

SM: Some parents worry about the stigma associated with sending a child to a special educational school. What would you say to them?

CV: Stigma comes from a vast misunderstanding of how human beings work. This is not about holding your child back or putting them in a bubble. This is about empowering your child by helping them crack the code on how to bring their best selves intellectually, socially, and emotionally. We’re turning that over to kids who happen to be differently wired, so they can turn their unique ways of seeing the world into cultural and scientific advances that can one day benefit us all.

“We’ve seen kids go from severely behind in a given area to ahead of the grade,” she explains of the curriculum. “And that’s because we’ve identified and built up those low-lying skills.”

  • Cajal Academy teachers.
  • Co-founder, Cheryl Viirand.
  • Drafting a blueprint.
  • H. Edwards, co-founder.
  • Stream-side class.
  • Nearby stream.
  • Teaching in the library. (Photo: Randy Thomas)