One description of autism and inclusivity

Inclusivity-n-

The fact or policy of not excluding members or participants on the grounds of gender, race, disability, class, sexuality etc.

Towards the end of 2009 my son was assessed for suitability into an inclusive autism intervention centre called Alexa’s PLAYC (formerly Children’s Toddler School) in San Diego, USA. He started there when he was 23 months old, and stayed for 9 months at which point we returned to Australia. Apart from the autism diagnosis, he was assessed as suitable for this program due to his young age, his problem solving skills and his ability to learn in a group. As parents we agreed to do at least ten hours of therapy a week with our son at home, implementing the strategies taught to us in the parent training.

Alexa’s PLAYC was such a positive experience for our son and our family. The program had a number of classrooms each with 12 children aged 18 months to three years, 4 with/or at risk of autism, and 8 neuro-typical children, all screened to be appropriate peer models and developmentally on track. The children in each class remained fairly consistent, with new students introduced only when a child turned three years old and aged out of the class or if a family moved on. There were also classes for children aged three to six years of age. There were four staff in the classroom, trained in both autism and early child development, and all tertiary qualified. They all rotated duties in the classroom. My son’s ‘case manager’ was also a classroom teacher. She was given time out of the classroom to update my son’s goals and pass on the feedback to my husband and myself. Other highly qualified and experienced staff at the Centre worked to oversee the entry of new students, programming, training and staffing. My son was there for the afternoon session 3.5 hours a day 5 days a week. It was year round, breaking only for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There was also a two hour a week visit from a classroom teacher to help us with community outings, play dates, and to observe and coach us in the home. In total it was 19.5 hours a week. State funded. No paperwork. I filled in one set of paperwork upon entry, and it was the only set of paperwork I was required to fill in until we exited the Centre. At the Centre the parents of typical children paid centre fees (and did full days), and the regional centre (with State funds) paid the fees for the children with/or at risk of autism (who did half days, either a morning session or an afternoon session). I have attached the link to this program and research results. www.rchsd.org/programsservices/a-z/a-b/alexasplayc/research/index.htm

The value of meaningful and scaffolded interactions and integration with neuro-typical children at this young age was the stand out part of this program. Other strategies were incorporated in such a seamless way. Plus the staff created a fun, stimulating, warm and loving environment. Visual supports, the layout of the classroom, transition supports, turn-taking, reducing prompt levels and so on were embraced by all the children. The parents of the neuro-typical children I found to be understanding and compassionate people. The research also supports that the neuro-typical children were achieving and benefiting from being in this program.

Being able to drop my child off at the centre allowed me to rest. My stress came down knowing my son was getting what he actually needed. I was then able to put in a great effort with him at other times and implement all the strategies in a generalised way. The training was excellent, the goals were clear and measured and updated every five weeks. Areas of focus were ‘autism specific’ with the focus on joint attention, receptive and expressive language, greetings, interactions with peers and adults, imitation skills, play skills, daily living skills and so on. I was still working hard with my son and was tired, but no longer exhausted. My son made steady progress, in some developmental areas he was making month by month gains. I started to say to people ‘I am taking my son to school’ rather than saying ‘I am going to therapy!’ That felt so good! Below is the link to the parent training program used at the centre. www.amazon.com/Teaching-Social-Communication-Children-Autism/dp/1606234404

Each room was set up like a toddler classroom and used incidental teaching, pivotal response training, DIR/Floortime, discrete trial training, PECS, structured teaching and consultative speech and occupational therapy. Interaction with typically developing children was facilitated throughout the day. The Centre set goals for each child, as well as using the curriculum from The Early Start Denver Model. www.amazon.com/Early-Start-Denver-Children-Autism/dp/1606236318

Alexa’s PLAYC worked in collaboration with the research centre CASRC , Rady’s Children Hospital, Compass Family Centre and UCSD, so the research could be directly translated back into the program. www.casrc.org , www.compassfamilycenter.org , autism-center.ucsd.edu

In my experience appropriate inclusion for toddlers and young children with autism is important to an evidence based program and key to addressing best outcomes and best practise. As always, it may not be the right path for every family or every child, but in those early years it was part of my son’s progress, my family’s well being, the other children at risk/or with autism, and the education of the neuro-typical children and their parents.

I would love feedback from anyone who has heard about or been in a program for children aged between 18months and three years, like the one my son experienced? I wonder whether it would be outside the realms of possibility that the WA State government or Australian Federal government could provide and fund such a Centre for toddlers and children (with readily available assessments and placements). Would parents of neuro-typical children be interested in and happy for their children to attend such a Centre? Any thoughts on this topic and inclusivity in general are most welcome!

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9 thoughts on “One description of autism and inclusivity

  1. Great work karen!!! You have achieved so much! As you know America is years ahead of us here in Perth, I understand the need for such excellent care and education for both at risk/autistic and typical children. I think if the patents of the neuro-Typical children are educated and have knowledge and understanding that such a programe will Benifit their child then you will see interest. This would be the first step and Then as interests arise then funding may come!

  2. Karen, that sounds like such a supportive and nurturing environment. This is what parents of children with Autism want… this is the kind of inclusivity we are fighting for. The education of our children (or lack of it as the case may be) has been a heartache for many of the parents I come across. I know there are early intervention childcare/pre-school centres in Perth, and there is the Autism Association program, but I don’t think anything compares to what you have described – especially in regard to it being free of charge! If you want to find out more about autism and schooling in Perth – there is a lady Thea Olney who is involved in trying to set up an Autism specific school. This, I believe is more for older children/teens, but it may be worth finding our more about the model they intend to use. When I had contact last with Thea, the project was called ‘The What Now Project’. I thing Autism West are assisting them and may be able to put you in contact with someone who knows more.

  3. Well said Karen! As you know, we have no such experience! However, having a NT child as well, I would jump at the chance to have him in a centre like you described. Growing up with a special needs sibling, I have found Kye, at the age of 5, to be compassionate, understanding, tolerant, kind, caring, accepting, and willing to help his peers and friends at school. Sometimes, it might just be a younger child, but he’s always willing to lend a helping hand to someone he considers to be ‘in need’. He has forgone his own friendships, to go and play with someone who is ‘lonely’ and for him it just comes naturally. I think what he is developing is empathy, and I’m not sure if it’s something that can be taught or how you develop it, but certainly in our situation, Kye is well and truly on his way. Being with special needs children, I think, gives other children a whole new learning experience that can’t simply be taught, but has such a positive influence that has the potential to last a lifetime…

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