On a cool, sunny April morning Benjamin walked through the Monarch Center for Autism Preschool lobby with a fistful of flowers, greeting his teacher with “Look Ms. Erin, this flower smells good.”
Holding his teacher’s hand, the two headed to the classroom where Benjamin asked for help removing his jacket and stashing his lunch of noodles, yogurt, and fruit in his cubby.
Benjamin is in a group of eight children ages 3 to 6 who have Autism and spend their days in a program that creates a supportive learning environment. Each classroom at the school is designed to meet the unique sensory, communication, behavior, and academic needs of individuals with Autism.
“If someone had told me a year ago that Benjamin would be able to speak in short sentences, engage in cooperative play, and ask for help, I would never have believed it, “ said Marissa, Benjamin’s mother. “In my mind Monarch staff are royalty and should be wearing jeweled crowns on their heads.” Marissa credits Monarch’s intensive early intervention practices as a key component to Benjamin’s success.
Marissa’s gratitude is well founded. When Benjamin started Monarch Preschool at age 3, he had limited balance and mobility — scooting to get around — and no coordinated control. He had low muscle tone, was not toilet trained, and his diet was limited to four pureed foods. After a careful assessment of Benjamin’s strengths and weaknesses, the Monarch Preschool team developed an intensive individualized education plan (IEP) with quantitative, measurable goals. “We tailor every moment in our small classes to each child’s unique learning requirements,” said Debra Mandell, director of Monarch School.
All IEP goals are worked on across all settings by the entire team — an intervention specialist, associate teachers, speech-language pathologist, occupational and recreational therapists, music and art therapists, and a behavioral specialist.
“The Monarch Model is a visual language immersion process and incorporates dynamic language using iPads, computers, and static cards with still images,” explains Mrs. Mandell. “Visual processing has proven to be very successful at Monarch.”
Students have a daily schedule that looks similar to a typical preschool setting. In addition to art, music, and story/circle time, each student works on gross motor skills with a recreational therapist and has two to four individual therapeutic sessions per day. Their steady progress, though incremental, brings daily gratification to teachers and specialists. Not to mention unparalleled joy and hope to their families. In many cases, staff are on their knees modeling behavior, imitating tasks, and reteaching often.
When Benjamin came to Monarch Preschool, he could use a dozen single words such as “bye-bye” and “mama.” He would not imitate a modeled word, had no response skills, inconsistently responded to his name, and had fleeting eye contact. The approach involved maintaining consistency in his schedule and the people around him, daily repetition, and engaging Benjamin in activities that used new words.
To initiate joint attention, Benjamin was taught to first have eye contact, then to point. In order to expand the food Benjamin ate, a systematic approach was implemented that included increasing sensory supports. Every week different foods were introduced to Benjamin with a rainbow theme. Initially the item would be placed on the table without drawing attention to it, then on his plate. After a steady progression — taking anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months — of touching the item, smelling it, and kissing it with his lips, Benjamin was then encouraged to try the food.
“Let me tell you one of my most memorable mom moments,” said Marissa. “Six months after Benjamin had been at the school my formerly nonverbal son touched my head as I was helping him get dressed and said for the very first time, ‘I love you mama.’ My life was changed in an instant.”
Now in his third year at Monarch Preschool, Benjamin speaks in four- to six-word sentences, comments on things he observes, addresses friends by name, and plays board games with his older sister. The team is considering plans for Benjamin’s transition and reintegration to his home school.