September 8, 2003

Walden School provides ‘best of both worlds’

By Elizabeth Cloud

Few people realize one of the nation’s most highly acclaimed learning centers for children with autism is right here at Emory. The Walden Early Childhood Program is making strides in early childhood development and research, both for children with autism and non-autistic children.

The Walden School operates out of the Emory Autism Center and brings together autistic and “typical” children in toddler, preschool and prekindergarten classrooms. The major purpose is to help children with autism learn from the behavior of their classmates. Currently 18 children are in each classroom, with 12 typical children and six autistic children; the 2-to-1 ratio is by design.

Researchers have spent countless hours studying the children’s behavior and have found both groups to be reaping tremendous benefits from the Walden environment.

More than 90 percent of the graduates with autism have moved on to be included in their neighborhood regular education classrooms, and 92 percent have left with functional verbal language skills.

However, it is not only the autistic children moving ahead in the classroom: The typical children are entering kindergarten at much higher reading levels. Some even have been recommended as candidates for first grade, having the option to skip kindergarten.

But most parents say it is not the higher academic levels they are happiest with—it is the advanced social skills their children develop while at Walden. Researchers and parents alike are finding that the typical children, when compared to their peers, leave Walden more empathetic toward other children and more flexible in general, due to their daily social interaction with the autistic children
“Not only do we encourage a lot of social interaction and have activities designed for that,” said Michael Morrier, the assistant director of early childhood research, “but we rely a lot on the typical children to help teach the autistic children. For instance, they may help the teachers organize snack time and help bring everyone together, or they may play a large role in teaching the children with autism new games or activities.”

By focusing on enhancing the social and academic development of both groups of children, the Walden School runs a successful program that has been a prototype for others across the country.

The Walden School has been mentioned as a model program of early education and treatment in a recent publication of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our whole philosophy is that kids are going to learn best when they are having fun,” said Amy Corbin, educational specialist. “And because the children are so young, the activities we design for them are just as stimulating to the typical children as they are the children with autism.”

Although the program at Walden is based heavily on data collection and research, its goal is to create as normal a learning environment as possible. The classrooms are just like any other preschool classroom, except obvious care has been taken to ensure they facilitate increased social interaction.

Consider the playground: Instead of a solo slide, the slide on the playground is designed so that two children can slide down together. There are two steering wheels built onto one of the decks adjacent to each other, similar to how the swings and rockers are set up.

Vocabulary words and themes of the week adorn the walls; they are posted for the purpose of learning, but also to encourage interaction and conversation among the children. For example, at lunchtime every day the children are given a word they are encouraged to use when talking to others at the table, such as “neat.”

“Everything the kids do in class, the activities they participate in, even what they play with, has been evaluated by research to ensure all of our goals are being met. We want to make sure the children are getting the most possible out of their environment and their peers,” Morrier said.

Family also is a large part of the program. The school hosts activities that include parents, like various themed parties, picnics and potluck dinners. Parents, in turn, play a large role in helping Walden.

“They keep the school full by word of mouth, and they host fundraisers that really benefit the program. Some of them even participate in classroom activities. They are vital to our success,” said Corbin. “We want parents and their children to feel like they are part of a community here, not just a part of a research program comparing the development of non-autistic children with autistic children. We do so much here to make people feel like they are getting the best of both worlds.”

The teaching methods used at Walden are referred to as incidental teaching methods. Gail McGee, the director of the program, first incorporated these methods when she developed a similar program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1985. There she designed a program with a 1:1 ratio of typical children to autistic children. In 1991 she was lured to Emory where she was followed by 12 staff members, and together they began the Walden School
Since then the program has evolved to include younger children, as well as the prekindergarten program, which recently received funding from the Georgia Lottery so that it can offer free tuition. It also has risen to a level of highly recognized and acclaimed status within the autistic community. Several satellite programs across the country run with support from Walden.

The Walden Early Child-hood Program is just one of several educational programs operating out of the Emory Autism Center. There are also school inclusion programs designed to help older autistic children, as well as adult assistance programs. For further information on the Walden program, call 404-727-3964; or for other programs available at the center, call 404-727-8350.