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Preschool program for children with autism set to open

May. 8, 2014, 8:54 AM

Speech-language pathologist Carolyn Estopinal works with 2-year-old Bentley Baker at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. A preschool program for children ages 18-36 months with autism or suspected autism is opening in mid-July. (photo by John Russell)

A preschool program for children ages 18-36 months with autism or suspected autism is opening in mid-July at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center (BWC), with plans to expand to children ages 3-5 in the near future.

The preschool will operate from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with students spanning two classrooms to start.

Aftercare and additional services will be available each day until 5:30 p.m., according to Jennifer Pilkington, BWC’s Autism Preschool coordinator.

“We have long been providing group speech-language therapy sessions for children with autism. A preschool that is led by speech-language pathologists that also provides additional support services, including occupational and behavioral therapy, is something that is unique to this area,” Pilkington said. “Our speech-language pathologists have experience in the classroom and expertise in the area of autism.”

This intensive-based treatment specifically for children with autism will focus on establishing and improving functional communication skills, social interactions and play skills.

Pleasant View resident Tracy Baker has been bringing her 2-year-old son Bentley to BWC therapy for an hour a week and is excited at the potential that extended preschool sessions can offer. Bentley was diagnosed with autism at 20 months and is delayed in speech.

“We have been working with him on signing and learning words. He has really done well in six months,” she said.

“We have made progress with just an hour a week here but just imagine if you could have it three days a week for several hours a day. That is huge. It is very hard to get someone to come to your home to provide these services, and it is very expensive and insurance does not cover it.”

The preschool will use occupational therapists, feeding therapists and behavioral analysts to provide services.

A portion of the costs will be covered by insurance and the rest will be tuition-based. Additional services will be available as add-ons, in addition to aftercare.

“There definitely is a need, and with the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with autism, they need a structured type of environment where they can come and get these early skills under their belt so that they can be prepared to enter preschool, kindergarten, first grade,” Pilkington said.

“They learn to start an activity, to finish an activity, to transition smoothly between activities and manage all of the stimulation that goes on in a classroom, which prepares them to be successful in that structured environment.”

The preschool pod will be located on the 6th floor of Medical Center East in the Pediatric Speech/Language Clinic on the Vanderbilt University Medical Center campus.

Parents will be able to observe their children during preschool or drop off and pick up at the end of the class.

“The new preschool within our Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (DHSS) is an extension to our already established services for children with autism,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and BWC associate director.

“This preschool will utilize the same model as our very successful Mama Lere Hearing School for children with hearing loss.”

For more information, contact Pilkington at 936-5212 or

by Chanler Knowles

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