New MSU program provides hope for parents of children with autism

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EAST LANSING (WJRT) - (11/05/15) - More and more parents are hearing the words "Your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder".

One in 68 children are diagnosed with the condition that affects each child differently. A new program at Michigan State University is giving renewed hope for better outcomes for the youngest sufferers of the disorder.

ABC12's Dawn Jones is here now with more on MSU's Early Learning Institute.

The Michigan State University Early Learning Institute is for children 5 and under who've been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a collaboration between the college of education and the college of Social Science. They use highly specialized intensive one-on-one therapies, tailored to the needs of each individual child.

It's another morning of kisses and goodbyes for Meghan Hetherton as she drops off her son Reece for pre-school.

"He gets one-on-one everyday, Monday through Thursday," Hetherton said.

This isn't a regular pre-school - it's the brand new early learning institute on the campus of Michgan State University. It's for children with moderate to severe autism.

"He is constantly getting the therapies that he needs and they are constantly accommodating his needs as an individual," Hetherton said.

Reece is 2 years old. When he was 6 months old, Hetherton noticed he wasn't developing at the rate of his twin sister.

"He crawled much later than she did, he walked much later than she did, he wasn't verbal, he wasn't growing, even the babbling skills that a baby has, he didn't have those," Hetherton said.

It wasn't the first time Hetherton saw these signs in one of her children - her oldest child also has autism.

"We had already gone through the accepting process with Mckenna and what we need to do and how we need to parent differently to accommodate her needs, so I think it was easier when we found out Reece had it, too," she said.

The Early Learning Institute opened its doors to students in September. Hetherton stumbled upon the new program purely by accident.

"On the Facebook post, it sent a link to the application, so the next day, I emailed it in and I was like, 'What do I need to do to make this happen right now?' Those were my exact words - 'What do I need to do because I'm not waiting, I need to jump on this right now,'" she said.

Reece is one of only eight children between the ages of 2 and 5 currently enrolled.

Dr. Josh Plavnick is the assistant professor of special education in the College of Education. He says applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, is highly specialized and individual for each student.

"We use principals of behavior analysis to teach behaviors that children need to learn to be successful and to help decrease some of the behaviors that may be difficult for them or interfering with them getting into an inclusive setting or having positive outcomes," he said. "So we know, not just from day to day, but literally moment to moment whether or not a certain environmental event like the way we might present an instruction is effective or ineffective for that child to learn and we can modify the way we teach immediately so we are constantly being more effective and efficient for the individual child who is in front of us."

It can be quite expensive, ranging in the tens of thousands of dollars a year. It's been only in the past couple of years, since the passage of autism legislation in Michigan, that ABA therapy has become more accessible.

"When that passed in 2012, it opened up many opportunities for many families and service providers," Plavnick said.

It helped pave the way for the Early Learning Institute, whose goal is to prepare autistic children for future success in kindergarten and beyond.

At the institute, students spend half of their day in a classroom with non-autistic children.

"They are learning alongside, with and from their typical peers, and have numerous opportunities for social interaction, for learning, to learn in pre-school environments and that really helps them prepare for kindergarten in the future," Plavnick said.

"Even his daycare provider, his ability to sit down and do a table activity, to be able to make those eye contacts and to be able to (do) even more socializing," Hetherton said.

She's amazed at what her son has been able to accomplish in such short time in the program. He recently made a gesture that may seem small in the big picture, but is priceless to this mother.

"Reece said "mom" for the very first time and it was like, I started crying, and it was meaningful and he didn't just say it - he said it to me," she said.

It's these kinds of moments Plavnick and his team hopes to create for every child and family enrolled in the Early Learning Institute.

"When you have a kid with autism who isn't talking and hear them ask for their first thing, or a parent walks in the classroom and they say "mommy" or "daddy", that's a pretty rewarding moment. I don't know how much better it can get for some of those moments," Plavnick said.

Many of the therapies used in the program are also taught to the parents so they can use them at home.

Right now, the program is limited to a very small number of children. Plavnick says space and resources are both factors in this, but more importantly, he says the class is small so they can achieve maximum impact. His hope is to perfect the model and see measurable positive gains for children before expanding the program to other sites.

Private donors and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services were instrumental in the establishment of the Early Learning Institute .

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