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Home » Autism »

Supporting Children with Autism in an Inclusive Early Childhood Center: Why and How We Do It


Corinne G. Catalano, M.A.

School Psychologist/Program Coordinator
Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University

Sara, a special educator, and Paulette, an early childhood teacher, watch four-year-old Joseph explore the crayons and markers in the classroom. Although most four-year-olds are working on drawing circles and faces of a person, both teachers see that Joseph needs to build up his muscles before he can draw circles. Paulette speaks with the team’s occupational therapist about ways to increase the strength in Joseph’s hands. Based on this conversation with the therapist, Paulette adds putty to the fine motor station in the classroom so that Joseph can pull, squeeze and poke the putty. She also provides thick crayons that Joseph can grasp easily as he works on making simple strokes on paper, while he explores the different colored crayons.

This is a scene that happens often at the Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. Our Center provides education to children with and without disabilities from three months to six years old and their families. We believe that children with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities should learn, play and grow alongside their same-age peers.

One way of doing this is to create high quality practices for ALL of the young students who attend our center. We follow practices from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). We also use an approach to working with children with autism and related disabilities to help them learn and grow based on their own learning rates and styles. This approach comes from the well-respected work of Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Wieder. Their work is called the Developmental, Individual-Differences, Relationship-Based model ( DIR®/Floortime). Teams of early childhood teachers, special education teachers, and therapists work together with children and their families to understand each child’s strengths and needs. Using this information, they plan together how to best help each child communicate, play and learn.

We call this a developmental approach to educating young children with autism.
In a developmental approach, we meet the child at her current level of growth and learning. This means that we take the child’s lead and learn from the child what she can do and where she needs some help. The main goal is to help children to be active learners who learn by exploring their environments -- watching, listening, playing and communicating with others. The adult assists the child in learning new skills that the child might not learn without adult help, such as zippering his jacket or asking a peer to borrow a toy. With the necessary support, children will be able to do these things on their own!

NEXT: Why We Chose a Developmental Model

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