New program for young children with autism to open at MSU

August 20, 2015

Joshua Plavnick

Michigan State University will launch one of the nation’s first programs to help young children with autism using a combination of one-on-one training sessions and classroom experiences with peers.

The Early Learning Institute (ELI) opens for 3- to 4-year old children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) this fall. It is one of the latest collaborative projects at MSU focused on ASD, with leadership from faculty members in the College of Education and the College of Social Science.

“ELI emphasizes a step-by-step approach to early intervention across several environments,” said Joshua Plavnick, assistant professor of special education at MSU and co-director for the institute. “Half of their day will be spent in one-on-one, intensive behavioral therapy, which will help children learn skills by catering the teaching to them. In the other half of their day, children will learn social interaction skills with and from their peers in an inclusive, classroom setting. This approach, along with programming for parents, sets families and children up for the transition to kindergarten.”

The curriculum is individually created to suit the needs of each child. Children will be assessed in the areas such as language, social, observational learning and academic readiness skills. Then, specialists will develop and implement an individualized treatment plan for each child to address core deficit areas relative to their similarly aged peers.

The institute will also provide training for future applied behavior analysts (ABA), researchers and teachers, giving them space to practice what they have learned with the children in both settings.

ELI is located at the renowned Child Development Laboratories (CDL) Central School, 325 W. Grand River in East Lansing. From spacious inclusive classrooms stocked with learning materials, to rooms with tables and chairs and soothing colors where children and specialists can work on skills alone, each room has several behavior technicians and teachers watching, playing with and interacting with the children to help them learn and grow.

The rooms are also equipped with observational areas where specialists can watch and listen to the children and take notes on their behavior. Additionally, the CDL has a video observation room with computer monitors where specialists can watch camera footage from the classroom to go over interventions used with any particular child.

Laurie Linscott with donors for the institute in early August.

Laurie Linscott with donors for the institute in early August.

“This helps ELI constantly adapt to the child’s needs and tweak the education and intervention as needed,” said Laurie Linscott, director of the CDL and co-director at ELI. “The observational rooms, cameras in the classrooms and interaction with the children will provide hands-on training for the service professionals.

“It’s exciting because we’re training the next generation of teachers and ABA therapists who will use these best practices in schools, and we’re also modeling a unique program that can have a great impact when replicated around the country.”

ELI has also partnered with the Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton, Eaton and Ingham Counties, which will help allow the institute the opportunity to work with children and families from diverse backgrounds.

The institute will start off small in its first year of operation, accepting only eight children, but Plavnick and Linscott say they hope to expand in coming years and replicate the model in other locations around the state. In the fall of 2016, ELI plans to add two-year-olds to its curriculum.

The Early Learning Institute is currently accepting applications and will officially open on Sept. 9. Children will attend 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. More information about the program and how to apply can be found here, or by calling (517) 355-1900.

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