The Easterseals North Texas Child Development Program, a unique preschool serving children 6 weeks to 6 years of age, has a remarkable track record of success—96 percent of children with autism who move on from the program enter regular kindergarten.
In most early childhood programs that use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, close to 50 percent of kids move on to regular education. The ABA model used by ESNT, which includes both children with autism and typically developing children, accounts for its high success rate, said Program Director Jessie Whitesides. “One of the reasons the ABA model we use is highly successful is because it is inclusive. We all learn by watching others, and that’s what happens in our program. Children with autism are taught to watch and model behaviors of their typically developing peers.”
Beyond impressive discharge rates and other strong outcome measures—parent surveys, individualized goals met, and standardized test scores—it is the program’s impact on the lives of children and families that speaks most clearly to its ongoing success.
“If you think about the lives of a family where a child can’t communicate, that is pretty tough,” Jessie said. “There may be a lot of tantrums and disruption, and it’s hard to take your child out into the community, or have playdates. When we help kids learn to communicate, interact and learn, peace settles over the family. Another factor is that instead of going into a more restricted situation, children with autism have the same opportunities for learning and future success as other children.”
ABA is a proven, evidence-based, therapy that helps children with autism learn skills and lessen problematic behaviors. The model used at ESNT, Walden Early Learning Program, is designed to increase language, engagement, and social skills, and to help children learn to form friendships and prepare for success in kindergarten. It is based on learning environments that include both children with autism and their typically-developing peers.
The beauty of the model is that it benefits all children. Staff members facilitate social interactions between children with autism and their classmates, allowing children diagnosed with autism to learn from their typically developing peers—increasing their opportunities for learning and enhancing their natural learning abilities. Typically developing children gain skills in problem solving and leadership, learn to communicate with those who communicate differently, and recognize differences as ordinary.
“My passion for the program comes from the fact that all children benefit,” Jessie said. “Children with autism learn how to learn and how to interact with their peers, while typically developing kids gain so much. They see kids who communicate differently, but it’s ordinary and they’re not scared of it. By helping peers with autism, they learn how to break down tasks and solve problems.”
The model was developed by Dr. Gail McGee, a noted clinical psychologist and founder of the Walden Early Childhood Program at Emory University School of Medicine. Dr. McGee was already working with ESNT in 2010 when Jessie joined the agency. She enthusiastically continued the work, and the program received full replication status of the Walden model in 2017. Certification requires inclusion of both neurotypical children and children with ASD, and criteria related to staff/student ratios, classroom arrangements, staff training, and the maintenance of a positive environment where learning is natural, fun, and rewarding.
The program’s positivity and productive learning environment were readily apparent to Mary Moran, PhD, Director of Child Wellness for The Fedcap Group.
“It is a wonderful program,” she said. “Jessie and her staff are really skilled, and they do a really good job. It is a very positive place, very stimulating and developmentally positive for the kids. Everyone seems happy. You get a sense of joy when you walk in.”
Staff professional development is a priority, including 40 hours of up-front training on ways to interact with children that contribute to a positive environment–the model eschews punishment in favor of incremental rewards, positive reinforcement, and a wide variety of support and motivating activities. “We don’t use the words that are negative,” Jessie said. “We won’t say, ‘don’t stand on the table,’ instead we’ll say, ‘you can stand on the floor or sit in a chair.’ The whole focus is on the positive and giving choices. We use a lot of praise.”
A range of child development services support the program’s commitment to families and children, including kindergarten prep, ABA therapy (Inclusive, Zones/groups and 1:1), parent training and collaboration among therapeutic service providers.
“The more involved parents are, the better the outcomes for the children,” Jessie said. “We provide training and work with parents at least once a week on skills, so they can continue what we are doing at home. We don’t want them to be teachers, but just to use daily routines to teach skills and to be able to identify what is reinforcing and motivating to their children.”