Like many 3-year-olds, Brad goes to preschool every day. Despite his Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, his parents were caught by surprise that the fun activities during the day – circle time, crafts, learning time, recess, lunch and nap among them – were harder for him than his classmates.
“When families are given the diagnosis, they are handed a packet with lot of jargon, lists of phone numbers, etc., but there are very few people who sit down with a family to talk to them about what it is actually going to look like as they go into a classroom,” says Leighna Fischer, director of Behavior Analysis at Autism Family Center and a board certified behavior analyst.
Parents should know:
Transitions likely will be harder
Transitions from activity to activity are often major challenges for kids on the autism spectrum. In a typically structured preschool schedule, kids on the spectrum struggle when made to stop one activity they enjoy in order to move on to another activity they may not like as much, says Lauren Rabin, the CEO at Autism Family Center.
Potty training can delay admission
With all kids, potty training can sometimes seem like an uphill battle, but it is often harder with kids on the spectrum. In many cases, preschools require a child to be potty trained before being admitted to a full-day academic program. So kids on the spectrum can find themselves in a Catch-22, needing the academic challenges but being prohibited from getting them.
Academic goals can absolutely be reached
A lot of kids on the spectrum are capable of reaching a school’s academic goals and meeting Common Core standards, but to get there, they need a different approach. “Parents should ask their child’s therapist, ‘What skills do we need to be taking extra time to work on at home? What resources do I have to advocate for my child? What additional resources do we need to ensure is in place for the academic school year?’” Fischer says.
Paying attention is more difficult
A 15-minute circle time is a long time for a child on the spectrum. For many children, just looking up when a teacher speaks for a moment is hard; imagine staying engaged and digesting what they are saying for an extended period, Rabin says. In addition, kids on the spectrum need help recognizing when they are called on and engaging with their teachers.
Early intervention is critical
“We know how important early intervention is. The research has shown us time and time again that we need to enroll children in services as early as possible. But the program needs to be the right one, for everyone,” says Sydney Cohen, the care coordinator at Autism Family Center.
Brad was receiving ABA therapy at Autism Family Center before and after preschool, but his parents and the center staff knew he needed something more than the preschool could provide during the day. They weren’t alone.
“Parents continued to tell us, ‘We need a program that gives our kids the support their preschool can’t,’” says Rabin, a former early education teacher who saw how kids in her structured classroom struggled. When she and Fischer started looking around Chicagoland to help parents, they found there weren’t a lot of resources for early learners to provide the skills they needed for school.
So the women created it.
The new therapeutic program, Academic Achievers, follows the typical routine of a 3-year-old’s class: circle time, craft time, nap time and so on. But the program takes it a step farther, using concepts of ABA therapy. Each child receives a personal counselor who tailors every single instruction given to the group of students and creates a unique curriculum, while also engaging the child in the group’s day-to-day routine.
Therapists work with kids on prerequisites needed to enter preschool and kindergarten, such as responding to their own name, practicing language and gestures to communicate their needs, and potty training. At the same time, kids get to practice making real friendships with the other kids in the center-based program.
“Our goal is to have each child enter a typical classroom as quickly as possible. We work closely with each child to make sure they are ready to take the next step,” Fischer says.