Meeting Special Needs

Brewer-Porch students at a computer
Two Brewer-Porch students work together on an assignment.

From the July 2015 Desktop News | Brewer-Porch Children’s Center is meeting an ever-growing need—early intervention for children diagnosed with autism.

“The increasing rate of kids being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders is alarming,” said Dr. Rick Gray, director of Brewer-Porch. “A few years ago, people didn’t know what the word ‘autism’ meant. Now, almost everyone with whom I come into contact knows what autism is.”

Brewer Porch has provided state-of-the-art treatment for Alabama children and adolescents confronting a variety of behavioral needs since 1970. In recent years, its autism program has become one of the center’s largest therapeutic programs as a result of the increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in children.

An auxiliary unit of the College of Arts and Sciences, the center provides a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to treatment that includes a long list of specialists including nurses, psychologists, teachers, social workers, therapists, mental health workers, psychiatrists and more, as well as opportunities for research aimed at developing best practices.

The autism program encompasses two interventions, preschool and school-based. The preschool program includes three preschool classrooms that are housed at Brewer-Porch, while the school-based program provides one-on-one services to autistic students attending elementary schools in the Tuscaloosa City and Tuscaloosa County school systems. The goal of both programs is to intervene early so that children diagnosed with autism might require less intensive services as they get older.

“Starting as early as possible is extremely beneficial,” said Patience Melius, a special education teacher in the preschool program. “We’ve seen a lot of kids who come out of the preschool program who are able to be more independent and require less intense services once they enter the school-based program. Another advantage of the preschool program is the increased support we have in regards to student-to-staff ratios in the classrooms. There are a lot of different brains working to make sure each individual child gets the support he or she needs.”

This fall, Brewer-Porch will offer the same opportunity for early intervention to typically developing children by offering preschool classes that integrate both groups. Pamela Pruitt, education director at Brewer-Porch, said she expects the change to be mutually beneficial.

“The goal of that classroom is to provide the best possible intervention for both groups,” Pruitt said. “In an integrated environment, we can work on things like developing language, leadership skills, social skills, emotional skills and academic skills in all of the children in the classroom.”

Integrated classrooms are especially valuable for preschoolers, Melius explained, because they don’t have a lot of vocabulary and teachers can use pictures for learning.

Gray said integrated classrooms also develop leadership skills and sensitivity in typically developing children.

“Integrated classrooms help sensitize typically developing kids to know how to better deal with someone with a disability, and research has shown that typically developing kids often take on leadership roles when they interact with kids with autism. A lot of times, the kids with autism accept the leadership and direction from their peers better than they do from adults.”

For all of the programs, Gray said the goal is to help students grow so they may return to their communities.

“A lot of people think that kids come here and that they live here forever, and they don’t,” Gray said. “They may stay here for a year or two or less, but our goal is to help kids get back into the community, into their school, into their home, and see them grow and learn and develop and get jobs just like everyone else.

“Other organizations in the state may provide some similar services, but our scope of services is unique. We also have the advantage of being part of a major university, which allows us to serve as a learning site for university students, as well as a research site. We strive to continue providing positive treatment outcomes and to improve the services to the kids and families that we serve.”

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