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
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.