Imagine that your child has just been diagnosed with autism, a neurodevelopmental disability that impacts one in 88 children in the United States and 90,000 individuals in the state of Virginia.
“It was like being kicked in the teeth,” says Kelly Smith of Henrico, mom to six-year-old Stacylee. “The diagnosis was terrifying but it lit a fire in me to find out how I could help her.” Through her research, Smith found The Dominion School for Autism (DSFA).
“We know that intensive therapies based in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) have the best research base for helping young children with autism have positive long-term outcomes,” says Christine Owen, educational coordinator at DSFA. “Our program is based in ABA, but that is really just the beginning.”
DSFA has been serving students with autism since 2005. Commonwealth Autism Service, a statewide agency that addresses the needs of families living with the disorder across the lifespan, assumed operation of the program in July of 2012 and introduced the Competent Learner Model curriculum to the school. The curriculum is based in the principles of ABA and focuses on skills that are key to all learning, such as observing, participating, problem solving, talking, reading, and writing. These are also skills that are often delayed or found to be challenging for children with autism.
The program serves students ranging from two to 21 years old on three different campuses. Programs for children ages two to six offer an inclusive model, housed in typical community preschools. “Our students spend time with typical peers throughout the day. For some kids, it might be five minutes, but for others with more readiness skills the majority of their day can be spent practicing social and language skills with their peers,” says Owen. “It’s really the best of both worlds because they get intensive support in a natural environment.” Currently, both preschool programs are in Mechanicsville, but one program will be moving to Chesterfield County in September.
For many of the students, this intervention enables students to enter more typical educational environments once they are ready for kindergarten or first grade. They might still need support in the classroom, but they have developed enough skills to learn alongside their typical peers. For students who continue to need intensive intervention, the school-age program provides an adapted, life skills curriculum that includes functional skills, community-based instruction, and vocational preparation.
According to Smith, “The teachers meet Stacylee where she is now, but push her constantly to progress. The goal is working towards independence and accomplishing meaningful tasks. We have been so happy with our experience at the Dominion School. The staff and teachers at Dominion are remarkably qualified.” As the parent of a child with autism, Smith says it’s crucial for instructors to have knowledge of the disorder, but adds, “More importantly, they see my daughter as I see her: a child first. They respect her and treat her like a child… who can learn. The implications of this are huge because it allows her abilities to shine and sets her up for success.”