New county daycare center supports autistic kids

NEW HAVEN — On a recent morning in a sunlit room on Rivers Bend Road in New Haven, four-year-old Brian Henderson sat on the floor and pondered his next move. A pair of mittens on a string was placed next to him and his snowsuit was half on and half off. His teacher sat on the floor beside him; after some consideration, Brian moved over to sit on her lap.
His brothers and classmates, two-year-old twins William and Jackson, were already playing outside. But there was no rush. Unlike a student in a traditional preschool, who likely would have been hastily helped through the process of dressing, then hurried outside with a pack of classmates, Brian had all the time in the world.
Brian is a student at the Sapphire Center, an early childhood care center in New Haven designed to meet the needs of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASD. The Sapphire Center opened last June and is a licensed preschool center for up to 12 students, ages two to six. It currently has four: Brian, William, Jackson, and their peer Alex Lagro, who is two-and-a-half.
“We try not to rush kids through transitions,” said Sapphire Director Michele Fouts, who was observing Brian from nearby.
ASD is characterized broadly by communications difficulties, repetitive behavioral patterns, and lack of ease or interest in socializing. For children with ASD, transitioning from one activity to the next can be an especially taxing time. Since Sapphire Center’s staff aims to build up its students’ confidence and independence right from the get-go, days at the center are not run by a rigid time structure, but rather a more flexible routine that students learn to guide themselves through.
“If it takes 20 minutes to help a kid get dressed independently, we do that,” said Fouts.
Children with ASD have difficulty in traditional school settings. But experts are starting to realize that if ASD is diagnosed at a young age, early childhood care centered on building behavioral and social skills can significantly improve and mitigate the effects of the disorder.
“It’s a big concern,” Fouts said. “I think that the number of children being diagnosed is going to continue to rise, and it’s going to really challenge us as a society and as a community in terms of how we’re going to support these kids.”
The Sapphire Center offers intensive one-on-one attention and Fouts — whose two decades of training and experience ranges from work with families as a behavioral interventionist, in the school system, and at the Counseling Service of Addison County — works closely with parents and families to harmonize the messages (verbal and emotional) that students are getting in all the environments they occupy and from all grown-ups with whom they interact. Fouts particularly uses a method called Relationship Development Intervention.
“It’s about building relationships, and not just (the kind of relationship) where a kid with autism communicates just to get its needs met,” she explained. “One that’s genuinely built on experience sharing, emotion building, just being together because it’s nice to be with people, and it feels good to be with people.”
Good early childhood models for combatting ASD are more in demand than ever. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which netted national attention in recent weeks, found that the rate of autism diagnoses, particularly in young children, had skyrocketed in recent years. The report found that one in 88 children under the age of eight was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, which includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett syndrome, and any pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS.)
Brian was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. His mother, Missy Henderson of Middlebury, said she had suspected something was different about her son around the time Brian was one.
He started at the Sapphire Center just after it opened last summer, and was joined by younger brothers William and Jackson, who were diagnosed with PDD-NOS. Brian had previously attended a different early childhood center, but the Hendersons were not totally satisfied with the experience, which included a much lower teacher-student ratio. The focus was not explicitly on students with ASD.
The family’s experience changed at the Sapphire Center, Henderson said, where Fouts’ specific expertise in early childhood autism and her work experience has trained her in the importance of coaching families along with their children.
“Brian made quite a bit of progress in the first weeks,” Henderson said. “Michele also worked with me … Prior to this I didn’t know squat about autism. I have a better relationship with my children now.”
Fouts agrees that in some cases, ASD symptoms can be apparent from 12 to 24 months, although in other cases the symptoms do not become clear until later.
“Oftentimes, children on the spectrum don’t make a lot of eye contact,” Fouts said. “They’re not as responsive to face-to-face kind of imitation, the simple back-and-forth of baby play … The typically developing baby will be just absolutely mesmerized by your face, your voice and just everything you say and do.”
For children with ASD, however, objects that make repetitive motions, like light fixtures or ceiling fans, are often of much more interest. Older children and adults with ASD can often become intensely focused on one or two subject areas and develop levels of expertise in them (people with ASD generally have normal to superior intelligence).
“I use the terms static and dynamic,” said Fouts. “The human face is very dynamic. You don’t know what the person is going to do next. Whereas if you’re looking at a ceiling fan, it’s very predictable, it’s just going to go around and around and around. That’s often more comfortable, and easier for children on the spectrum to engage with.”
The Sapphire Center’s staff focus on bringing students out of their shell. Play activities with toys and objects are mixed with verbal and interpersonal games that require students to mimic and read the expressions of others. The ebb and flow of the day, Fouts said, moves through a similar routine with snacks and rest and activities occurring in the same general order throughout the day. But students are never rushed, Fouts emphasized. Stressful activities like transitioning, or personal care activities like clipping nails and brushing teeth, are practiced throughout the day with staff constantly on hand to offer support and encouragement.
The Sapphire Center is licensed for 12 students. But though Fouts hopes to serve more families in the future, she is committed to keeping the same level of one-on-one attention as the program grows.
“Having 12 kids would look very different from having four kids. Ideally, we will grow as the program grows. We have a whole other building that is ripe for renovation … We will adjust as we grow to continue to meet their needs.”

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