When Harlow Richard turned 18 months old last August, her parents, Kimberly and Samuel decided to enroll her the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center’s (SARRC) Community School.
“It was a big change for us because she had been at home with babysitters and family before when we worked,” her mom shares. “But we had heard such great things about SARRC and the Community School and we wanted to be a part of that.”
The family looked at various schools before choosing, but felt this one was the right one for their daughter.
Harlow is a typically developing child and one of nearly 130 students who attend the Community School’s inclusive preschool program, which provides high-quality early childhood education for typically developing children alongside intensive, ABA-based programming for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The school accepts children ages 18 months to 5 years old and provides the social and academic fundamentals to ensure kindergarten readiness.
Choosing the Community School
“The ratio of kids to teachers [it’s a 4:1 ratio], and also the way teachers guide interactions, made us feel comfortable with the kind of care that was going to be happening at the school,” Kim says, explaining their decision to enroll Harlow. “Seeing and hearing how the kids are guided through possible challenging scenarios is really wonderful. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’ve also been told how the teachers have worked with Harlow and her friends.”
Even at the tender age of 2, and after just one school year, the Richards see the impact the program has had on Harlow.
She has blossomed in her development—learning new words, new songs and new information—and made “amazing friendships.” “We were excited at the prospect of her being around different types of kids and learning empathy in an environment like that,” explains Kim. “Also, the social interaction that she gets there is invaluable.”
In fact, when Harlow returns home from school, she loves to tell her parents about her friends.
“She talks about her friends there and she tells us stories when she comes home,” Kim says. “She’s learning so much about being a good human being and we value that.”
“Harlow is pure joy,” says Community School Director Rachel McIntosh. “She has a heart of gold with just the right amount of spice. At a mere 18 months, she began the program with about four teeth and almost no hair. Her language was just developing and her communication often defaulted to pointing and other gestures to get her needs met. Now, after a full 10 months in toddler, Harlow is sporting pig-tails, knows the words to every circle time song, and gestures serve to emphasize her points alongside her extensive verbal repertoire.”
A Benefit for All Kids
“The benefits of inclusion are for both children who are neuro-typical and those who have a diagnosis of autism are countless,” continues McIntosh. “For the children who are typically developing, they are learning at an early age how to embrace and love individual differences. They are learning compassion and acceptance—something that will carry with them for a lifetime. For the children who have a diagnosis, they have an opportunity to build peer relationships with a wide range of peers and develop their social-communication skills in a warm and loving environment.”
Children who go through the school leave prepared for kindergarten, with “a confidence in their step that is almost palpable,” she continues. “They have an awareness of human differences and how everyone has the ability to succeed.”
An Added Bonus, Says the Richards
In addition to being happy with the program and care that Harlow is receiving, the Richards say they experienced an added bonus.
“The teachers are incredible,” Kim begins, “and I think that the program has even made us better parents. … We’ve heard how redirection happens; we’ve just gotten so many ideas about how to be better parents from these teachers. “We go to bed at night thinking thank God for SARRC because we’ve gotten advice from experts about raising kids."
She pauses, and then says, “We feel in our hearts that this is the right place for her. It feels like family.”