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Columbus Conference Focuses On Early Childhood Development

A two-day conference on early childhood development wraps up today in Columbus.

It features local and national experts highlighting the importance of relationships in the development of young children, particularly when there are developmental concerns. One such model created by a Michigan pediatrician has found a home in Columbus and helped improve the social and emotional development of children diagnosed with autism. Mike Foley reports.

Dr. Richard Solomon has been diagnosing and treating children with autism spectrum disorders for nearly three decades. In 2001, he developed the program - Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters or PLAY.

“The secret is seeing the child accurately, seeing what they want. What I always say to parents is when you do what the child loves, the child will love to be with you. If you try and impose your ideas on the child, which most parents do, it doesn’t work. So we call it following the child’s lead. We call it reading the child’s cues and engaging the child in a back and forth interaction based on what they want. The other thing I say to parents is when you accept your child totally for where they’re at and you join them - that actually changes them for the better the most.”

A study published in late 2014 confirmed what Solomon already witnessed – the program fosters better parent-child interactions and improves language, development and autism-related symptoms.  

“Since the study, Ohio adopted the PLAY project’s parent-implemented model statewide in early intervention. So if a child in Ohio who’s less than 3 years of age has even red-flags for autism, they’re eligible to get the parent-implemented PLAY project model free. I think 80 percent of the counties now offer it here in Ohio. And we’re working with insurance companies, we’re working with other agencies to bring this model to other families.”

Kids recite Pledge of Allegiance

The Childhood League Center has been caring for kids in Columbus since 1945. In the early 1960s, it began serving children with developmental disabilities.  And just last year, the Childhood League Center became the first licensed PLAY project center in the country,  and the only one offering the program in homes and in the classroom.

Lead instructor Diane Ingber has a class of 16, half of which have been diagnosed with a special need or delay.

“I bet you can’t look in this room and tell me who is a peer model and who is on an IEP, because they are so entwined and they learn from each other and they’re watching each other. A lot of empathy is happening in the classroom, a lot of learning, a lot of observing, and the interactions you see going on are just great.”

In its simplest form, the program mirrors its acronym – instructors play with the children, engage them in ways that meet their different interests and then continue to build on those relationships and interactions and as a result, the social skills of the children grow and they’re happier.  As Ingber interacts with another child, the center’s Cathy Kupsky recalls how far he’s come.

“Wes started in the PLAY project when he was 2 years old. He was non-verbal and engaging with him was very difficult. And then if you look at this intervention continues to happen at home and in the classroom, to where you get a child who loves playing and loves his friends and loves being around other people, it’s just phenomenal in three years what the transformation has been. His first few days back this school year, he was running up to everyone and saying Hi, and we were just so excited because we had never seen Wes connect in that way. And then as he continues to blossom, you see him seeking out friendships with other kids in the class, and it’s just so exciting to see that growth, that social emotional development.”  

Of the 470 children enrolled with the Childhood League Center, most are served in their homes.  Consultants make monthly visits, reviewing video of the training sessions, evaluating their effectiveness and revising the strategy if necessary. Westerville resident Julie Luu has a 3-year-old son diagnosed with autism and a 2-year-old girl.

“Before we started the play project, there wasn’t a lot of back and forth interaction with us. It seemed like he wanted to play but he just wasn’t sure how to play. Now we call him our social monster because at home all day he’s making up games with rules. His imagination is amazing right now. We’re still using PLAY to help him with things like sharing and how to respond appropriately when he doesn’t get his way, helping him with some of that emotional regulation. But he has friends that he has play dates with. He asks his little sister to play with him. One of the biggest successes is he actually will let her get her way sometimes.”

Childhood League Center CEO Ginger Young says almost half of the center’s preschoolers with special needs will catch up with their peers and be ready for kindergarten.  And last year about 40 percent of infants and toddlers met developmental milestones and no longer needed specialized services. But she stresses all children make significant outcomes. Young recalls a video session involving a mom and a child in a bouncy seat.

“It was literally a split second that the kid made eye contact. Mom got in there and then what they did show was how they built on that over time. And what we know is, parents that have children on the autism spectrum, the most difficult thing is not emotionally connecting with the child. We have to wait for the kid to open that window – it may be small, it may be a larger opening but as a parent you have to recognize when it’s open and to get in there and interact and then know when to back off, and that’s what the home consultants teach. The best thing about that whole video was that the mom was just ecstatic that she had a second to interact with her son, it was amazing. And so from a lay person, I got it at that point. It’s relationship-based, it’s engagement-based, and it’s called PLAY because that’s what kids do, they play.

Officials with the center also agree that the spirit of the PLAY philosophy has a broader application, especially in today’s environment where many find themselves distracted by electronic devices. Maggie Gons directs the PLAY project and specialized interventions at the center.

“We still need engagement to do anything. You need relationships with people to learn and when you have those relationships, you build skills and you make memories and then you’re motivated to keep doing it. Taking time out of our day to really connect with people and being present. A lot of PLAY is being present to the moment and reacting in that moment, and so I think at the core that’s what we all want.”

The Center will be helping Dr. Solomon expand his concept beyond Ohio by training more parents and professionals. Solomon says children with autism have tremendous potential, and he wants to help parents find that potential through PLAY and other models.  

Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Foley has worked in various roles, from producing news and feature stories to engineering Live From Studio A sessions. A series of music features Foley started in 2018 called Music Journeys has grown into a podcast and radio show. He also assists in developing other programs in WCBE's Podcast Experience. Foley hosts The Morning Mix, a weekday music show featuring emerging and established musicians, our Columbus-area and Ohio-based talent, and additional artists that inspire him.
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