The First Steps

The First Steps

For children with autism, the path to independence is paved with huge little victories.

There are few things more fun in life than playing with a parachute and some Wiffle balls–clutching the edge of the nylon and on the count of 1!–2!–3! everyone lifting in unison, watching the plastic balls bounce like popcorn from the billowing air. That’s what going down in the “Motor Room” of Ready, Set, Connect! and you only have to take one glance at the gigawatt grins on the children holding the parachute to know that, despite the fact all of them have varying degrees of a verbal and vocal challenges, today they’re speaking in the universal language of This rules!

Teacher and student at Crotched Mountain School

Crotched Mountain’s Ready, Set, Connect! (RSC) delivers autism services to young children with a pioneering clinic-based model. Instead of isolated, one-on-one supports, RSC kids experience growth and learning with one another. The 1/1 ratio still exists as each child has a therapist by their side, but the journey is taken together, as a group. And there’s a very simple reason for this: because that’s life.

“The goal is to get them responding more to group instruction,” says Amy Rollins, RSC’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst. “It’s a crucial skill for success in the public school.”

Amy comes to Crotched Mountain from the Seacoast Mental health Center, where she worked with older students on the autism spectrum, many of whom had not received basic skills at an early age. As such, she was forced to reverse-engineer behavior, introducing the protocols that should have been in place before kindergarten.

Now at RSC, she has the chance to ensure children with autism get off to a great start, with the ultimate destination being the one common answer she hears from parent after parent when they’re asked “What do your child to grow up to be?” Their response: “I want them to be independent and happy.”

That is not a controversial goal, but for children on the autism spectrum there is no expressway. It takes work and patience and unrelenting encouragement to help them achieve that future, which is why Amy starts early, one step at a time.

“It’s harder to teach an uncooperative four-year-old than an uncooperative 17-year old,” she says. “What we’re trying to do, really, is just get that first snowball rolling.”

The “snowball” is made up of little victories: learning to stand in line or hanging up your coat or taking turns or abiding by a schedule or working together as a group to launch Whiffle balls into the air with a giant parachute. Each achievement, no matter how small, represents another sedimentary layer upon which future success is built.

smiling student at Crotched Mountain School

And if there are stumbles along the way–that’s okay. Because that’s life.

“We all have those moments when we’re unhappy and struggling,” Amy says. “We’re helping families realize that it’s okay for their children to be angry and frustrated with someone telling them what to do. They are just expressing it differently.”

Eventually the lessons take hold and the frustration subsides. The lines form and the jackets are hung.  And slowly–but surely–the little victories pile up, the successes accumulate, and these children begin to see, with ever-increasing clarity, a future of independence and happiness.

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