BLOOMINGTON — A small center to prepare children with autism for kindergarten and first grade has opened and already is looking to expand in the fall.

The Autism Learning Center began providing applied behavior analysis services to children with autism, ages 3 through 5, earlier this month at Easterseals Central Illinois, 2404 E. Empire St., Bloomington.

The center — formerly four treatment rooms — was unveiled to the public Wednesday during a McLean County Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” said Chris Peavler of Bloomington. His son David, 5, has autism and began receiving physical, occupational and speech therapy at Easterseals 18 to 24 months ago, Peavler said.

But behavior analysis services began when the Autism Learning Center opened earlier this month. Peavler already has seen “modest improvements” in David’s communication and bathroom routine.

“His general frustration level is doing down,” Peavler said. “He really enjoys going there and loves working with all the educators. They are building upon what he has already learned.”

Easterseals in McLean County serves 1,200 children and teens with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, visual impairments and other disabilities.

Autism services on Empire Street had been limited to diagnostic services, speech and occupational therapy. Children who needed applied behavior analysis were referred to other providers or to Easterseals in Peoria, said Jamie Severtson, a behavior analyst and Easterseals vice president of behavioral health.

“So that was a big gap for families,” she admitted. Applied behavior analysis is comprehensive, intensive and individualized service for children immediately after diagnosis so they are as prepared as possible for kindergarten and first grade.

“Applied behavior analysis targets all of the features of autism,” Severtson said. “We’re trying to give them (the children) the skills they need to be as independent as possible.”

Emily Wright, a behavior analyst who has relocated from Easterseals’ Peoria center to Bloomington, assesses each child at the Autism Learning Center individually and designs a personal treatment plan. Children learn words, concepts and directions individually, then apply what they learned in games and activities with other children at the center, Wright said.

The learning center is designed like a preschool room, rather than a therapeutic setting, to make it easier for children to apply elsewhere what they learned at the center, Severtson said.

The Autism Learning Center has four children so far, including David Peavler, and has hired four behavior analysts, meaning Easterseals now has 35 full- and part-time employees in McLean County, Severtson said.

“We’re actively recruiting staff to grow the program in Bloomington and Peoria,” Severtson said. Easterseals hopes to expand the center’s number of children and hours of operation in the fall, she said.

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