Hearing, speech center will offer program for autistic children

The Lexington Hearing & Speech Center announced Wednesday it will offer more classes for hearing and speech-impaired youngsters and a program devoted to autistic preschool children when it moves into the former Julia R. Ewan Elementary School, which the center is buying.

"We are talking to schools around the country that have autistic classes and working to put together a program," said King Offutt, president of the Hearing & Speech Center board. There are different therapies for treating autism, he said. "We want to identify what we think's the best and incorporate those into our program."

Asked to assess the demand for autistic-focused classes, Offutt said a number of educators had told him, "You won't believe how much need there is."

The program initially will be for children ages 2 to 4 but will expand to serve older children. That timetable has not been established.

At a news conference, the center announced its purchase of the elementary school and expansion of its programing. It paid $1.6 million for the 76,000-square-foot building that had been declared surplus property by Fayette County Schools after the school closed in 2008. Traditional Bank is arranging financing.

The center will move in time for classes to start next fall.

With fives times as much space as it now has in three small buildings — former single-family houses at 154, 158 and 162 North Ashland Avenue — the center will add more preschool classrooms, plus first- and second-grade classes; and have room for its outpatient clinic and the autism program.

The gymnasium will be a big plus, Offutt said, providing a place for youngsters to play when the weather is bad.

The gym might be used for community events or leased in the evenings for basketball programs.

The center has 70 preschoolers and 40 children in day school. While the center is "proud to be identified with Lexington," Offutt said, it served 1,000 children from 47 counties in 2009.

"We are jammed into our current facility and are turning kids away, which we don't want to do," he said. "We want to expand our services without compromising the small class ratio we have now."

Lexington businessman Bill Meade, who bought the Ewan property 18 months ago at auction, described the Hearing & Speech Center as "a perfect fit" for the building. "Everybody wins," he said, including himself. "No more mortgage payments," Meade said.

Mayor-elect Jim Gray commended Meade and his wife, Nancy, for buying the school "to preserve a place that has been a big part of this neighborhood's history, a big part of the authentic and unique specialness of Lexington."