In the news

Preble County schools pioneer autism program

By Louise Ronald, Palladium-Item
Published Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ethan Schulte was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 2 years old.

Within a week, Ethan and his family were enrolled in the PLAY Project, an early intervention program offered through the Preble County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

PLAY stands for Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters. The program was developed by Dr. Richard Solomon, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Preble County began using the PLAY Project for children age 3 and younger in 2010.

"It was an area of need for us," said Diane Knupp, superintendent of the county board of DD.

Mercer County, Ohio, was showing wonderful results from the program. Preble County was able to share staff with Mercer, since it did not have enough kids to warrant a full time PLAY Project consultant.

"It was amazing, the growth in the kids," Knupp said.

Ethan's mother, Courtney Schulte, saw that growth for herself. "It brings you a lot closer (to your child)," she said.

The basic technique of the PLAY Project is to meet autistic children on their own ground.

Kids with ASD tend to fixate on an object, Knupp said. Instead of taking the object away, the parent (or other adult) focuses on it with the child as a way to establish contact. As the two play with and talk about the object together, a relationship is established that helps the child learn to interact with others.

"It's drawing them out of their world into our world," said Knupp.

PLAY Project consultant Diana Holderman described the process as "enticing" children into a relationship. "They start feeling safe. If that kid knows an adult 'gets' them, ... that makes the adult safe," she said.

And — as the name implies — it's fun.

"It should look fun," Holderman said. "What people should see is joy. What they should hear is laughter."

By 2013, Knupp's agency started introducing the PLAY project to preschool teachers with great success. But the oldest child in the program was struggling with kindergarten.

Knupp began to explore the possibility of taking PLAY into the county schools.

Teaching PLAY

Project developer Solomon said that's not unusual. Every day, he hears concerns from parents of children with ASD about the difficulties their kids are facing in school.

His response is an extension of the PLAY Project called Teaching PLAY.

"What Teaching PLAY does ... is help teachers and school staff engage students in a way that encourages attention, engagement, interaction and involvement," said Solomon. "That leads to learning."

Solomon's organization did a pilot study last year throughout the state of Ohio, but Preble County is the first site in the nation to adopt Teaching PLAY into its schools, he said.

Kindergarten classrooms in Eaton Community Schools and National Trail Local School District in New Paris, as well as the preschool at Preble Shawnee Local School District in Camden, are participating.

"Preble County is very exciting," Solomon said. "Teachers are often stymied by children with autism. ... They're hard to engage." PLAY strategies can change that. "We can really help these children at the beginning of their school careers."

Onna Solomon, director of learning and development for the PLAY Project, said Preble County's effort, though small, is significant.

"This is the cutting edge," she said.

Courtney Schulte is excited that her son is continuing with PLAY at kindergarten. "I think it will make a huge difference," she said.

Ethan's teacher and aide at National Trail Elementary School, Cindy Herrmann and Tammy Kimball, received PLAY training in August.

"It's mainly doing what the child loves," Herrmann said. Ethan loves cars and trucks, so she and Kimball use them to help him practice counting, number recognition and other skills.

"Once you've got their attention and see what they're comfortable with ... then you can approach them academically," said Herrmann.

Once a month, a PLAY consultant visits Ethan's classroom to observe and videotape him in action. Teacher, aide and consultant watch the video together and talk about strategies and opportunities for the next month.

"It's not hard to do," Herrmann said. "It almost seems like second nature."

To be successful, it does require time and attention. The rewards, however, are great.

"It kind of brings the kids out of their shells," said Kimball.

Finding funds

Courtney Schulte was surprised to learn that Ethan's teachers would need PLAY training before he entered kindergarten.

"I thought this was in all the schools," she said.

Krupp said she had a good response from all county school districts when she first fielded the idea of introducing PLAY to the

This article has been reproduced for educational purposes only and appeared in the Palladium-Item. The original story can found at:

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