CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – A social skills approach is applied to improve the interaction and learning of autistic children.  ​

Playful Minds Learning Center (LC) in Chicopee has been offering developmentally appropriate activities that foster emotional, social, and intellectual growth for eight years.

Children with autism at Playful Minds LC are taught in an inclusive educational classroom, and although modifications may need to be made, teachers are to make the classroom a positive and accommodating place for that child. If a child has a specific Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), the teachers and directors will come up with an individual plan to help the child achieve his or her goals. The IFSP is a developmental background form that enrolls special needs children.

Playful Minds LC will first ask parents for an IFSP plan and go over this plan with teachers in the classroom if needed. Proper guidance from parents will help indicate the child’s likes, favorite toys, etc. as well as triggers that may upset the child. “A child who we may feel is not diagnosed and we feel may thrive with assistance, would first be observed by staff and a director. A meeting would then be set up with parents to talk about observation and at that time we could work with the parent to refer the child to an outside organization for evaluation,” said Williams.

Teachers will work with the child based on the IFSP plan, this could mean with sign language, communication boards, word flashcards, or stories. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), autism is a developmental condition that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. It has been highlighted by NAMI that symptoms of autism include problems with social interaction & communication, as well as restricted and repetitive behavior patterns.

Below are the following symptoms stated by NAMI:

  • Delay in language development
  • Repetitive and routine behaviors
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Sensory dysregulation forms a strong component of ASD. As a result, they are hypersensitive (overly sensitive) or hyposensitive (less sensitive) to certain sensory stimuli.
  • Difficulty interpreting subtle gestures and facial expressions
  • Problems in expressing emotions
  • Fixation on parts of objects, often to the detriment of understanding the “whole.”
  • Absence of pretend play
  • A lack of social understanding that makes interaction with peers challenging
  • Self-injurious behavior
  • Sleep problems

Among the behaviors that autistic children the ages three, four, and five years old exhibit in learning centers include parallel play, nonverbal tendencies, aggressive physical behavior, picky eating, and lack of empathy toward their peers, Co-Director of Chicopee’s Playful Minds LC Alycia Williams mentioned. She indicated that the symptoms that are most commonly displayed by these children are parallel play, nonverbal, spontaneous outbursts, hugging, and the need for caring touch.

Williams told 22News how children with autism can improve their social interaction to build friend groups. “Children on the spectrum can improve social interaction by progressively joining small groups or engaging in quiet one-on-one play, helping to care for classroom animals to create empathy, teachers can create associative play options if they find out the child’s likes,” she said.  

For autistic children, Williams says the challenges will include that parents may not share their IFSP plans with the center, the center may not have enough staff to provide one-to-one care, and resources for families and centers may be limited.

“Caring for children with autism is important because it is important that intervention and resources are provided early in the diagnosis. A child can make wonderful strides and progress if the diagnosis is caught early and both teachers and families are on board with care plans,” Williams said.