YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The Rich Center for Autism has been open for 20 years, originally starting out as a week-long summer camp, then growing into a preschool and finally evolving into a full-inclusion school program.
It’s right next to the Watson and Tressel Training Site on Youngstown State University’s campus.
The center teaches life and academic skills to about 70 students who have autism. The children range from ages two and a half to 17, but the center accepts students through the age of 21.
The Rich Center’s executive director, Melanie Carfolo, said the center has changed the way it teaches its students throughout the years.
She said the students are grouped in classes by age, academic readiness and sometimes behavioral issues, because every child with autism is on a different level
“We look to build upon their strengths, so we identify their needs and we know that we need to work on certain things, but we really play to the child’s strengths,” Carfolo said.
The center has children who can and cannot talk, for those who can’t, teachers communicate with them by using the Picture Exchange Communication System, or “PECS.”
“There are cards with pictures on them so students can communicate that way,” Carfolo said.
Technology also plays a huge role in the classroom. Students and teachers can now use more interactive technology to help engage with the students, like iPads and Smart Boards.
“Kind of unlocking that key to their understanding because we know that even though the children may not be able to communicate with us, there’s a tiny little person in there that can communicate and can understand,” Carfolo said.
The center is all about creating a one-on-one learning environment for its students, so there’s a two to one teacher-student ratio.
“We also have a board-certified behavior analyst that goes in the classrooms and checks to make sure that things are happening the way they should be,” Carfolo said.
Plus, each teacher has to have a close relationship with their students’ parents, helping reinforce the behavior of the students at home and at school.
“We can reinforce what’s going on at home if we know this is what I have him working on at home,” Carfolo said.
Becky Henry of Austintown has two sons who go to the Rich Center, 11-year-old Lucas and 7-year-old Liam. Both are on two opposite ends of the autism spectrum.
Liam has been going to the Rich Center since January. He is verbal and really likes using his iPad.
“Socially, he has more issues relating to people, he wants to be by himself a lot,” Henry said.
Lucas has been going to the Rich Center for about seven years. Henry said he is non-verbal and more severe, so he has to be watched all the time.
Henry is happy to see all of Lucas’ improvements.
“[His] ability to communicate with pictures or a communication device that wasn’t there at 4-years-old when he first started. He learns and you can see it, when I get his home notes and he’s mastered a new skill,” Henry said.
She keeps a very close relationship with her sons’ teachers, so they can anticipate how each day will go.
“When he [Lucas] has had a bad night or he didn’t have breakfast or his morning was a little rough, all of that plays into how his day at school is going to be,” she said.
Because Lucas likes having a routine, he has lunch at a certain time and goes to bed at the same time each day.
“He knows it by heart. He can’t tell time but he knows when it’s time for lunch, when it’s time for dinner and he wants it on schedule,” Henry said.
Sometimes, if the day changes, Henry says he will have a meltdown.
“He can’t tell me that he’s feeling frustrated or angry or sad,” she said.
Henry says raising children with autism takes a lot of patience.
“You can’t rush things, you can’t force things. You just have to go with the flow,” she said.
But although times can get tough, Henry says she wouldn’t change raising her sons for the world, especially when she sees them interacting with others.
The Rich Center is not done growing yet, it plans to remodel the entire building, creating a new life-skills center with a kitchen to help teach students about independent living.
Carfolo said she hopes to have those changes set in motion by 2020.
To learn more about The Rich Center for Autism, visit their website.
And to learn more about National Autism Awareness month, the following websites have information about what autism is and how you can help: