A look at the new Linwood School - a facility for children with autism - in Ellicott City on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (Jen Rynda/Baltimore Sun Media Group Video)

When it opened 58 years ago, the Linwood Center was a groundbreaking school for children with autism, one of very few such schools in the country.

In recent years, however, the Ellicott City school lost some of its luster, as the 200-year-old building aged and other, more modern facilities opened.

But now, the Linwood Center is working to return to the cutting edge of autism treatment with a new $7 million building, new administrators and teachers, and a new diploma-track option for elementary- and middle school-aged children.

The 36,000-square-foot building, funded with a combination of public and private money, is more than twice as large as the former school with space for 70 students, about twice as many as before. It includes state-of-the-art features not found in the old building, including a sensory room, a music room, a quiet room and a training apartment, where students can learn how to live on their own.

"This is a new Linwood," Executive Director Bill Moss said during a recent tour of the school. "It's completely revamped."

The new building opened in late August at the start of the school year. It was dedicated last week at a ceremony attended by scores of parents, donors, Howard County public school officials and county elected officials.

Among the latter was County Executive Ken Ulman, who recalled his first visit to the old Linwood years ago and seeing the "scary-ish" old building.

"I remember asking the question, 'How does this place function?'" Ulman said at the Sept. 18 dedication. "Now, it does."

Autism is a brain disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks, a leading national science and advocacy organization. Also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is found in about one in 88 children — 10 times the incidence as 40 years ago. That increase is usually credited to better diagnosis and environmental influences.

Linwood opened its doors in 1955 in a three-story former manor house, which now sits a stone's throw from the Howard County District Court Building. It was the vision of the late Jeanne Simons, an educator and therapist who saw the need for a comprehensive autism program at a time when few existed, and when many children with autism were institutionalized.

'Handwriting on the wall'

Linwood won kudos in its early years, and has always been one of the few schools in the state with an on-campus residential program for students with autism. It also is one of the few programs in the state to serve adults as well, with such services as employment help, a community-based residential program and the Linwood Center Boutique in Historic Ellicott City, a jobs and training site for people with autism.

But in many respects, recent times have not been kind to Linwood. The original building was never designed as a school and eventually, age and deterioration forced administrators to close parts of it. Capacity dropped from 35 students to 24.

Meanwhile, the student body declined as other, more modern facilities using the latest techniques were established. In addition, area school systems, which refer students to nonpublic schools like Linwood, grew more adept at accommodating autistic students in their own classrooms.

"We saw the handwriting on the wall," said Moss, who has worked at Linwood since 1975. "Parents didn't want to put their children in an old building like this. It couldn't compete with the type of facility parents wanted, particularly in Howard County. … We still had kids coming here, but it was more and more difficult to meet the needs of the children."

Linwood's struggles were well known in Maryland's autism community.

"Linwood was one of the first (schools for autistic children), but with the growth of so many others, they kind of got outpaced," said Linda Ferrier, the mother of a 21-year-old son with autism and a board member of Pathfinders for Autism, a statewide parent support and services group based in Cockeysville.  "It wasn't that Linwood ever did a poor job, just that there were newer, shinier places."

"Their building was really outdated, they couldn't keep up with the times," agreed Dorie Flynn, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities, an advocacy group for parents, students and schools. "They languished for awhile."

She said Linwood eventually decided "they want to be a premier provider and a sought-after program, really addressing the needs of children with autism. … I have a strong faith that they want to make their program work, and I think they will."

Over the years, Linwood has taken students not just from Howard County but also from neighboring Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick and Montgomery counties.