GREENFIELD — The Crotched Mountain Foundation has launched a clinic at its Greenfield campus for young children with autism.
The clinic, called Ready, Set, Connect!, enrolls pre-K kids as young as 18 months who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The clinic opened recently and is now accepting enrollment.
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of conditions characterized by a mix of repetitive behaviors, difficulties with social skills and challenges with communication. More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder, according to The Autism Society of America.
The Crotched Mountain School, also on the Greenfield campus, is a special education institution for students with learning disabilities from ages 6 to 21.
David Johnson, vice president of marketing and communications for Crotched Mountain, said Ready, Set, Connect! aligns with the mission of the school and is designed to target each child’s specific needs.
“We have a focus on serving kids with autism and using something called ABA therapy: applied behavior analysis therapy,” Johnson said. “We use this ABA therapy to set these goals for these children to become school-ready.”
Every child will receive a detailed assessment by a board-certified behavior analyst, who will then establish goals for the child that are directly linked to the assessment. At the Ready, Set, Connect! clinic, each child will be paired with an ABA therapist who will track their goals and achievements. Children can receive between three and 30 hours of therapy per week, depending on their needs.
“It behaves very much like a preschool. … There’s a lot of activity, there’s toys, there’s games,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to replicate that school environment, but every child has a one-on-one therapist with them at all times.”
However, he noted, no therapist is dedicated to a single child. Instead, the therapists rotate and circulate through the group to discourage a child’s dependence on any one person.
Johnson explained the goals set for kids in the clinic are typically minor tasks, such as standing in line or hanging up a jacket.
“Those are the kind of little things you’re measuring — stuff we might take for granted, right?”
Jonathan Stratton, a behavior analyst for Crotched Mountain School, said small tasks like these are often the building blocks to larger concepts.
“One goal could be if we’re just trying to build imitation,” Stratton said.
A key example of that, he explained, is teaching a child to clap their hands along with someone else. First a child learns to clap when their therapist claps, and then they learn to do so in a different setting. Eventually, Stratton said, parents call the clinic to tell them that their child is mimicking their actions at home.
“Imitation is one of the hallmark kind of behaviors that leads to learning a lot of other behaviors,” Stratton explained. “A lot of what we do, we learn from what others do. We learn from others’ mistakes, so it’s a very important kind of behavior for learning.”
Johnson said this focus on smaller tasks is about creating a strong foundation for each child.
“With varying degrees of autism diagnoses, they’re really interacting with the world in a different way,” Johnson said. “So you want to make sure you give them the tools they need to succeed in that world, and that’s why they really boil it down to very specific, minute things.”
Leanne Aiken is the director of Ready, Set, Connect!
“Getting the children into treatment earlier is better,” she said, referring to the clinic’s focus on pre-K. “The outcomes are better.”
Aiken said children benefit in many ways because the program is clinic-based instead of offering individual therapy in a family’s home. The program opens up a faster line of communication between the therapist and the behavior analyst since both are on-site. Children are also getting one-on-one attention in a group setting, Aiken said, which allows more peer-to-peer interaction and opportunities to work on social goals.
The Greenfield clinic is the foundation’s third branch of Ready, Set, Connect!, which is already available at the Concord and Manchester campuses.
“We’re taking that model, and we want to bring it to the Monadnock Region because there’s really not a lot around here,” Johnson said. “The need is there. We know the need.”