Asher's assuring progress is Kiddie Garden's reward

Center honored for its success with autistic boy

Small business

May 06, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

When 9-year-old Asher Johnson-Dorman threw loud, raving temper tantrums that lasted a half-hour or more at Kiddie Garden, his after-school child care center, owner Paula Matheos could have said the autistic child needed more than her staff could provide, and shaken Catriona Johnson's world.

"As a parent, you worry that somebody's going to come and say, `Sorry, his behavior is too bad we can't take him in,'" Johnson, Asher's mother, said. "I'm not hearing that. I'm hearing, `Let's get technical assistance, let's get more information, let's get a copy of the school behavior plan, let's get more training.'"

Kiddie Garden is one of several child care businesses and programs that were honored last week by the county Child Care Resource Center during the fourth annual Celebrating Successes awards reception.

The event highlighted 65 individuals, child care and early childhood education programs and businesses throughout the county that have made a difference in the life of a child.

Although Kiddie Garden teaches about 70 children each week and is seeking accreditation of its early childhood education program from the state, it is being recognized by the county for helping Asher.

The school, founded in 1996 by Matheos and her husband, George, does not specialize in working with children with special needs, but the award highlights the need for more centers like theirs in Laurel.

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides for special needs children to be able to attend any child care center - it is up to the center to show if there is too much of a burden.

But a 2001 report on care for children with special needs by the Maryland Committee for Children showed many proprietors are reluctant to accept children with special needs in their programs because of liability issues and the costs of adding and training staff members. The industry is burdened with staffing problems of high turnover rates, low wages and few or no benefits.

"They can't afford to hire another staff to be with children one on one ... [for] children with emotional needs. That is a very legitimate thing," said Vickie Scrivener, special projects co- ordinator at the Howard County Child Care Resource Center, who was on the steering committee that produced the report.

"There's a lot involved in every child with a special need, even if it's asthma," she said. "You need a protocol for the child's medication - what sets the asthma off, how severe does it get before I call 911?"

The need for child care is expanding in the county. Census figures for 2000 show Howard County has the highest percentage in the state of children younger than age 5. As the number of centers grows to accommodate the need, child care providers should pay more attention to providing for special-needs kids, said Debbie Yare, program manager for the county's resource center.

Too often, children like Asher, whose behavior is difficult to control, don't stay in one place long, she said.

"Those kids are dismissed from one center, and they're bounced around from center to center," Yare said. "That's why its so wonderful what's going on with Kiddie Garden because they're really working with Asher."

Asher's mother knows that scenario well. Kiddie Garden is the first center that her son, who has moderate to severe autism, has been able to stay in since he was about 4 years old.

When Asher arrived at Kiddie Garden in September, he would wander around the center with no regard for the routine, or he would play alone, counting objects and building with toys, staff members said.

Fascinated with machinery, he loved the hum of the fans coming through the ventilation ducts - so much so that the center incurred high electric bills before officials found that Asher had discovered the thermostat and was turning the fans on at will.

Karen Tracht, Asher's teacher at the center, got help from Project Act, a program of the nonprofit Abilities Network Inc. that trains and provides technical assistance to teachers of special-needs children to help the kids learn and be included. She also asked Johnson questions, and got information from Asher's school to learn the phrases and activities to which he responded best.

Over time, Tracht has learned a few key things about Asher and about communicating with children who have autism - how to use pictures to prepare him for changes in his schedule, and how a pair of safety goggles and a cold Sprite soda make Asher feel more comfortable.

Most important, the staff at Kiddie Garden has better learned how to tackle the biggest challenge with autistic children - drawing them out and helping them socialize.

Now one of Asher's favorite games is one he plays with Tracht. He pretends to be a school bus, slowly swinging his arm out perpendicular to his body like the yellow bar on a bus and holding it there. Tracht waits patiently until Asher tells her she can go.

"Just the other day, he was on the swing with a little girl playing a game they made," Tracht said. "It just took us getting to know him."

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