E. Ky. school uses intensive therapy to educate kids with autism

dhjalmarson@herald-leader.comFebruary 16, 2010 

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    To donate, apply for a job or apply to attend Highlands Center for Autism, go to www.highlandsautism.org.

AUXIER — "Good looking at me!" a worker says in a loud, happy voice when her 6-year-old student makes eye contact.

A speech therapist touches a 4-year-old's lips gently with her thumb to help him form the sound mmmm. When he can do it on his own, he gets tickled as a reward. He giggles, then uses a flash card to ask to watch a movie — a word that also starts with the sound mmmm.

"Jumping! I want jumping," a student calls as he hops on a trampoline, a break from his school work. His therapist tries to persuade him to try shooting a basketball and crawl through a fabric tunnel on the floor. Every time he follows directions, he is praised.

At Highlands Center for Autism, when a child successfully repeats an increment of a task, his therapist marks it on a data sheet and claps or rewards her student.

The private day school opened in Floyd County last year, started by Highlands Regional Medical Center and a group of determined parents of children with autism. After a $1 million startup investment and weeks of training at Cleveland Clinic's autism center, the school opened with four male students and a handful of staffers. Recently, a female student has enrolled.

A fund-raising campaign that started in November has raised $350,000, and school officials plan to hire more staffers and hope to take on two new scholarship students before the month is over, said director Shelli Deskins, a psychologist and applied behavior analysis specialist.

Tuition is $60,000 a year.

Autism is a spectrum of developmental disorders that affect how a child learns to speak, interact with others and do basic tasks, such as tying shoes. The disorder can be so severe that it's disabling, or it can be as simple as personality quirks or habits. Autism advocates largely say that applied behavior analysis — 40 hours a week — is the best way to teach an autistic child, especially in the early years after diagnosis, but the method is expensive and, frankly, tedious.

Data must be collected on a child's every task, and tasks are learned in tiny steps because autistic children can't necessarily learn simply by watching and imitating, Deskins said. Tying a shoe can take months: crossing the laces over and over, then looping the laces over and over.

The therapists who work at Highlands like the results they're getting, said the school's coordinating teacher, Misty Johnson. She worked in Magoffin County public schools for 12 years and went to Highlands because she was "looking for a challenge," she said.

"Here, every day, kids go home with a progress report," Johnson said.

She started at Highlands as a behavior therapist, working with the youngest student, Will Kinzer. At first, she said, she was daunted, but his immediate and rapid progress made her a believer in the methods and the school.

"The satisfaction of seeing the look on the parents' faces at the end of the day" gives a sense of accomplishment when the simplest tasks are accomplished. Toilet training, saying a new word, eating a new food — all these task are planned, carefully introduced, charted and reported to parents.

"You're not only making an impact with the child," but with the whole family, she said.

Dori Hjalmarson covers Eastern Kentucky. Reach her in the Pikeville bureau at (606) 653-2111.

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