This week we were presented with the opportunity to attend a "Parents Night" for Morgan's school program. It is called Project AIM (Autism Intervention Model). It is also sometimes called Alternative Intervention Model because there is opportunity for kids with other developmental disabilities to benefit as well, though at this point I believe all the kids in Morgan's class do have an Autism diagnosis. This program is a part of the school district and I believe we are completely blessed that we live where we do and that this program is in place. I also received some confirmation of this from the professor we are working with on the research study. She is contracted to work with this program next year and thinks it is a great one. This means a lot coming from someone who's worked with hundreds of kids with Autism and many school districts.
Currently there are only two children in Morgan's class. Morgan and a little boy named Hayden. They offered childcare for the evening and as soon as I brought the girls in, Morgan spotted Hayden right away. Hayden looked up at her (from sitting on the floor) and asked "Is that you, Morgan?!" Too funny. That is just how Morgan talks sometimes, completely stating the obvious, but in a question form.
We gathered in the "music" room and were asked to fill out cards, one for recent "successes" and one for "challenges." All the parents introduced ourselves and shared which classes our kids were in. Morgan's program consists of 2 1/2 hours integrated with the ECAAP program (Early Childhood Associate Apprenticeship Program: low income, but typical kids) and 1 1/2 hours of "intervention." There is another group where those time-frames are flipped, more time in intervention, less integrated. The teachers and therapists introduced themselves and shared the list of "successes" that we shared. They informed us that the challenge cards would be shared with the staff and taken into consideration for each child.
I also learned at that time that two more children would be joining Morgan's class. As much as I love how much attention she was receiving (one lead teacher and two assistant for two kids), it is much better for her socially to have more kids to interact with. The two new students, are not surprisingly boys, as Autism tends to appear in many more boys than girls. The new boys' parents were understandably apprehensive, but by the end of the evening were pleased with what they saw.
Then we broke up into groups by class and went to tour the classrooms. We started in the "Move to Learn" area that they use to work on gross and fine motor skills as well as sensory issues. The physical and occupational therapists create a sort of obstacle course that can be changed up every few weeks. The kids start in a particular spot and have to wait their turn to make their way through the course. It's amazing that just being told they have to sit in a spot and wait their turn can require so many different skills sets. It's so hard for these kids to sit still, listen, then follow direction. What can be so easy to some typical children, can be so difficult for kids on the Autism Spectrum. And some areas are difficult for some and not for others. This can be the same case for typical kids, but it tends to be the extreme for kids with ASD. The course itself looked like fun and gave me some ideas of things we can do at home with her as well. I could tell Morgan probably really enjoys this activity.
After the Move to Learn areas we visited the ECAAP class. This is such a fun classroom. It is so big and filled with so many activities. I've learned this can be overwhelming for kids like Morgan...but in this case they have a great routine established and all of Morgan's teachers from her intervention class are in this class to help her if she needs assistance and redirection. There are 18 spots for three-four year-olds in this class, this includes twelve "typical" kids and six from the AIM program.
Morgan's teachers shared that during breakfast time she is always in great anticipation of drinking her milk. All the children have to wait until everyone has their food until they can start eating and Morgan needs to be reminded a few times as she tries to sneak sips. They also shared that when in the kitchen play area one of the other little girls wanted Morgan to play with her. I believe this was prompted by a teacher, but the little girl took the suggestion seriously and would not take a "no" from Morgan. Slightly reluctantly Morgan went with her and followed the directions of what the girl wanted her to do. I was so glad to hear all of this. Imaginative play is something Morgan does not do much of and to hear that this is really encouraged is great. She also needs some other kids in her life that can pull her into play situations. So many times kids just leave her out since she does not readily engage them.
Gosh, this is getting long. From there we went to the "intervention" classroom. They really pack a lot into the hour and a half time period! They have lunch there and each child is required to have a little of everything offered that day on their plate and even if they don't eat it. They encourage the children to touch it, kiss it and even sometimes try a little bite. Autism often results in picky eating habits in many kids due to sensory issues or just not wanting to try anything new (inflexibility). I've also recently learned that some kids are "stuffers," as they don't know how to regulate how much they put in their mouth before chewing. Hmmm...Piper's not on the spectrum (at least that we know at this point), but I'd say she's definitely a "stuffer." I'm going to have to ask for tips on that. Ha!
After lunch they have circle time and one-on-one time with the teachers to work on academics, language and other individual skills as outlined in their IEPs (Individualized Education Plan). In Morgan's case they are really working on her fine motor and social skills as she struggles in these areas. The lead teacher had such a sweet story about circle time. As it's just Morgan and Hayden right now they both sit in little cube chairs in front of the teacher as they do a little music, talk about the day and the weather, etc. I was surprised to see they both have weighted lap pads that they use when they sit. These pads help them to sit still and focus better. The teacher said one day they sat down and Morgan noticed Hayden didn't have his lap pad on. She went and got it and essentially "tucked him in" to his chair, saying "There you go, Hayden." I about cried! This is so sweet and caring. Morgan cares about her friend and wants to help him. I love it!
Overall it was a great, informative evening. I came away with a much better understanding of how the program works and the amazing teachers and therapists that work with our little girl. They just seem to care so much about these kids and want to give them the very best start in their eduction. You can really tell this because Morgan loves to go to school. Sometimes we get a little resistance in the morning as she's waking up and having breakfast, but I think that's just the fact that, like both her parents, we are not morning people! There's not much we can do that. I do know that when Morgan gets to school she is happy and ready to participate.
I also was surprised to learn that Morgan is the youngest child in her class. The other parents also seemed surprised about this when the teacher mentioned it. The majority of the time these kids only have one year in the AIM program before they start Kindergarten. Because we got Morgan in Early Intervention before she was two, we were able to transition her to the school district program at three, she will have two full years in the AIM program before Kindie. That will give her such a great opportunity to learn and mature. We can give ourselves a pat on the back for that!