Getting ready for kindergarten is a big deal for any young child, but for those on the autism spectrum it can be an incredibly daunting challenge.
Thanks to recent efforts by the Lowcountry Autism Foundation, children with such developmental delays now have a special “preschool” like program right in Beaufort County where they'll get the educational and behavioral skills they need to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.
The LAF-Comprehensive Therapy Center opened in Bluffton in early February with six children enrolled with room for 12 more in its early childhood development program. A child need not be on the autism spectrum to attend the program, though there are trained therapists on staff ready to give each student the specialized attention he or she needs.
"Our goal for the children is to prepare them for transitioning into a typical classroom setting," said Beth McCune, the center's full-time special education teacher. "The development of a strong foundation for learning is crucial for all children, and particularly for children who have a developmental delay. We want to offer children support emotionally, socially, and academically so they are given every opportunity to be successful in their life."
It's an intense and fun early childhood development program that will challenge any child, and the extremely low teacher-student ratio (which ranges from 1:1 to 1:3, depending on the child's therapy needs) is an attractive advantage over other preschools, said Tripp Ritchie, LAF executive director. Plus "neuro-typical" students serve as models for children on the spectrum, who need a point of reference for the kind of behavior and social skills they should be striving for.McCune teaches the preschool literacy-based curriculum, which touches all domains of learning, including language, cognitive, fine motor, gross motor, adaptive, and socialization skills. The curriculum was created for children with language or developmental delays, but those in charge say any preschool-aged child would benefit from attending the program.
In addition to the general curriculum, an Personal Education Program (PEP) is developed for each child to set specific goals for that student. Each student's progress is closely monitored and documented to make sure goals are being met and the necessary therapies are showing progress.
Besides McCune, the staff consists of Ellen Fittro, a nationally Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and two Applied Behavior Analysis therapists, and the center hopes to hire a full time occupational therapist and a full time speech and language pathologist in the next several months. While this is in the works, each student's family signs medical record releases so the center's staff has access to the child's occupational therapy and speech therapy records and therapists, in order to facilitate its comprehensive approach.
A typical school day at the center consists of group time and rotations between different areas in the classroom focusing on specific "zones," including a sensory/discovery zone, art zone, literacy zone, and a social skills zone. Behavior, occupational, and speech therapies are embedded into the daily classroom environment, and McCune and the therapists work together to create the daily course of the program.
And as with any preschool worth its weight in smiles, there's story time, music, play time, and snack time.
There are two three-hour sessions — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — serving children ages 2-6 developmentally. The program will run year-round and there are immediate openings for children both on the autism spectrum and not. Cost is $10 per hour per child ($150 per week), which includes all the specialized therapies the child receives.
Ritchie says they can offer families a reduced rate if that's what it takes to get a child the extra help he or she desperately needs.
"We don't have enough resources out there helping these children," he said. "We need more ABA and autism resources out there in the community."
For more information please call Ellen at 843-706-2024.