By Meg DeMaria
On Oct. 18 the UMW Autism Play Lab opened its doors to 15 children with various disabilities with the help of Nicole Myers, Ph.D, the coordinator of the clinic. Ten UMW students received seven weeks of training in anticipation for the lab’s opening.
“Some [of the UMW students] have experience in special education, while others are general education teachers or those training to be. All are really interested in helping children with autism and related disabilities that they know will be in their classrooms.”
Working in the Play Lab is a way to get involved and gain hands-on training in working with a spectrum of disabled children. Children at the Play Lab have disabilities such as intellectual disability, autism, pervasive developmental delays, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, multiple disabilities and physical disabilities.
“We purposely took some children who would be considered ‘tough cases’ and some who have been kicked out of daycare and school situations in the past,” Myers said.
She tried to include children who may not have access to other resources in the community and who may not be performing well in their schools.
Myers really wanted the UMW students to see real-life examples of the struggles these children face and experience the challenge of working to find the right strategy that will support their growth and development.
Instead of choosing cases that could be dealt with easily, Myers chose the types of students most typical of current classrooms.
“We’re finding that we’ve been able to make a big difference by employing sensory-based support, individual tasks, and direct instruction in social skills,” she said.
Some of the Lab’s activities include: focusing, paying attention, completing individual tasks, greeting others appropriately, and regulating one’s sensory experience.
The Play Lab is also supported by two other organizations. Helping Hands Pediatric Occupational Therapy provides their facility free of charge to the Play Lab.
In addition, Heather DeCou, M.Ed, LPC, owner of Exceptional Support Services in Fredericksburg, helps provide supervision and support to the UMW students at the clinic.
“We could not do this without both of their support and help,” said Myers.
This semester more applications were received than could be accepted, but Myers hopes to be able to offer these services to more children in the future.
The Play Lab is already in the process of planning for next semester. Their current goal is to spread the word about the program and the course EDSE 547: Special Topics in Special Education.
Undergraduates and graduate students are able to take the course; students should check with their adviser for details, and there is no previous experience required.
“The number of children we can accept for Play Lab depends on our enrollment in EDSE 547, so we’re [focusing on] getting enrollment up so that we can offer the program to as many area children as possible” said Myers.