New program designed to assist autistic pre-kindergarteners

February 16, 2006|by KAREN HANNA


Fixated on the blades of a plastic helicopter, Dillon Corcoran didn't seem to notice as Jeanne Jones took one of his hands and pressed it against a board that changes color with heat.

Again and again, Jones pointed to the magical appearance of five fingers on the board, counting them as she compared the image to the identical features on Dillon's hand.

The 4-year-old had no reaction.

The boy is one of a handful of autistic pre-kindergarten students in a new Marshall Street School program that covers basics such as numbers, colors and shapes.


During one recent visit, Dillon and three classmates moved about the classroom with little interaction. One boy spent most of a play session crawling on the floor, pushing a toy train. When he came to the corner of the room, where a child safety fence blocked passage into the doorway, he cried.

Speech language pathologist Suzanne Mellott thanked the boy for asking for help and came to his aid, helping him steer the train away from the obstacle.

"Thank you for asking," he mimicked after the encounter.

Children with autism exhibit obsessive interests or repetitive behaviors and have difficulties interacting with others and expressing themselves, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Teacher Tara Nepa and Jones use pointing, sign language, touchpads and pictures of objects to help students express their wishes and get ready for new activities.

The program has helped Dillon, his mother said.

According to Coni Corcoran of Hagerstown, Dillon has become more social. A few weeks ago, he even said "hi" to a clerk at a grocery store.

"When he was saying 'hi' and associating the (hand) waving with it, we were, like, doing cartwheels because that's not what Dillon does," Corcoran said in a phone interview.

Startup materials for the class cost about $30,000, and salaries for Nepa and Jones total about $85,000, Student Services Director Mike Markoe said. Morning and afternoon sessions include spots for as many as 10 students, he said. Nine students are enrolled.

In addition to Nepa, Jones and Mellott, occupational therapist Andrea Semler also works with the students.

Finding ways for the children, who have limited language abilities, to communicate is one of the program's main goals, the educators said. "They can't say to the teachers, 'Who is that teacher sitting in the room? I don't feel safe.' They just scream and act out," said Jones, a teacher's assistant.

For 3-year-old Joey Morris, a student in the morning session of the pre-kindergarten class, interacting with other people presents challenges, his parents said.

Last year, the family spent about $70,000 on therapies, medicine and special food for the boy, his father, Tim Morris, said.

Jen Morris, Joey's mother, said the family hopes Joey one day will be able to participate in a class with more typically developing children, but she said he is not ready socially.

"I think I kind of wrestled with that, but I think he needed some basic skills. We thought he needs some basic skills before he moves off and is mainstreamed," Morris said.

The class has contributed to improvements in Joey's socialization skills, though the Morrises said they believe the biggest changes have come about because of intensive therapies at home.

The Morrises said during a recent visit they were planning to move to Pennsylvania, where they can receive more state aid to pay for Joey's therapies.

"There's definitely a sadness ... There are times when I'm by myself that I just cry for the child that was lost," Jen Morris said.

The Marshall Street program this year has included training for parents in the therapies their children are receiving at school, autism specialist Becky Groves said.

The program has been a success so far, she said.

"To predict what these particular kids will be doing in five years, 10 years, 15 years, we can't do that. We can only say that these kids are making progress," Groves said.

Moments after Jones had turned her attention elsewhere, Dillon showed he had been paying attention all along.

He touched the screen.

The Herald-Mail Articles