SOUTHERN COLORADO — It's no secret that in one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many of us---including our kids.
The impact can be even tougher on children and teens with autism, especially during isolation and e-learning which isn't for everyone.
KOAA's "Rebound Colorado" initiative is designed to focus on some the positive programs and initiatives happening around our region during the ongoing pandemic.
In this week's segment, we're featuring two special programs at Family Support Center---a specialized autism facility with locations in Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Rebekah Turner is a mother of twin girls---Emma and Lily.
"They were daddy's girls," Rebekah said. "He did everything for them. They were very spoiled."
From an early age, Rebekah says she had a gut feeling that something just wasn't right.
"I noticed there was something off," Rebekah said. "They didn't talk by the time they were two. My daughters didn't make eye contact. They didn't respond to their names."
These issues initially went untreated and then in 2019---tragedy hit the family.
"My husband got sick in February 2019," Rebekah said. "He had a heart issue and then on March 3, 2019, he passed away."
Raising children alone is a challenge in itself, but raising children with special needs can be even tougher.
Rebekah says she eventually found hope at Family Support Center in Colorado Springs.
"I asked for help," she said. "They stepped in and we kept a routine for the girls and that's the only thing we could do is keep a routine. For children who don't know how to express emotion and they don't have that foothold on 'I'm sad or I'm happy' ---they don't understand what changed but they know something has changed."
Rebekah enrolled her children in the Early Explorers program, previously called "Foundations".
"The goal of the program is to get kids ready for school as independently as possible," Program Manager Stephanie Cooke said.
The program focuses on children under the age of 7---preparing them to integrate into a normal classroom setting.
The program addresses social and basic life skills like learning how to speak up, ask questions, share and take turns.
"When Lily was between 2 and 4, she couldn't leave the house without this blanket," Rebekah explained. "If I tried to take it from her she would lose her mind. Now she gets dressed. She takes herself out to the car. She knows how to put on her seatbelt on."
Cooke says Lily and Emma's progress have greatly improved since enrolling.
"It's really neat to see them just move through the program whether they are with us for a year, two years or even six months," Cooke said. "It's amazing to walk into the group and see the changes."
Rebekah is proud of the progress her girls have made and credits Family Support Center for the skills they learned.
"To this day, people who talk to me will say you wouldn't know that the girls were autistic," Rebekah said. "You wouldn't just know that they lost their father. You wouldn't know and it would never have been that way without Foundations (rebranded as the Early Explorers program)."
Cooke says they take a look at where each child is individually and then they craft a plan for making progress.
"If a child is more comfortable socially, we would have different activities and opportunities for them compared to someone who might need a little encouragement to be comfortable."
Lily can now speak up and knows more than one language, according to Rebekah.
"Lily can speak French, Spanish, Mandarin and sometimes Chinese," she said. "She's intelligent and Emma is probably the sassiest I've ever seen."
Now with the life and social skills learned at Family Support Center, Rebekah says her twins will be accomplishing something she never envisioned would happen so soon.
"They're going to go to first grade next year," Rebekah said. "He (their father) would be so proud."
News 5 also spoke with Melanie Hoffman, a licensed clinical psychologist at Family Support Center.
"Part of my job is to explain to parents that their child is absolutely perfect," Hoffman said. "Autism by enlarge is an executive functioning deficiency which means you have problems planning, problem solving, waiting for turns, shifting your focus---that's the number 1 problem for children with autism."
Hoffman says individualized plans and focused treatment helps children of all ages leave better prepared than when they arrive at the center.
"No two children have the same treatment plan," she said.
For older tens with autism, Family Support Center has launched a new pilot program called "PEERS".
"We help teens who are in middle school and high school make friends and keep friends," Sandra Vandergoot, a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and clinical supervisor said. "Social Skills are a struggle for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We work on those skills at a younger age so they can develop them into adulthood which is really important."
The program is 14 weeks long and includes 90-minute sessions with both parents and their teens.
"Your child by the end of this program will be able to navigate through social experiences with teens their age and will be having social get togethers and gatherings," Vandergoot said. "They will be more comfortable either hosting friends or meeting them in public."
No matter where your child sits on the spectrum, Family Support Center wants the community to know they are expanding resources and ready to help children and teens with autism achieve success.
In Rebekah's case, that success includes her children learning how to play with others and read.
For more information on the services Family Support Center offers, click here.
Family Support Center Locations:
1330 Quail Lake Loop Suite 200, Colorado Springs
6169 Tutt Blvd Suite 120, Colorado Springs
155 Printers Parkway Suite 120, Colorado Springs
1026 W. Abriendo Avenue, Pueblo
With the expansion of services, Family Support Center also has multiple job openings available now.
For a link to open positions, click here.
How do I know if my child qualifies for Early Explorers?
This program focuses on children who are under the age of 7 and are preparing for or just starting school. Early Explorers shifts a focus to skills that will help children be more independent and successful in the school setting such as participating in a group, following group instructions and social skills. This program is overseen by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. According to Family Support Center, a number of clients attend this program instead of a typical preschool to help better prepare them for kindergarten. Speech and OT is available for those students who qualify.
What makes PEERS different from other social skills programs?
The PEERS curriculum is actually featured in one of the episodes of the Netflix series "Love on the Spectrum". It was developed out of UCLA to support individuals diagnosed with ASD or other social disorders who have challenges with peer interactions and relationships. The program is led by a certified BCBA and adolescent trainer and also offers in-home support with a behavior technician. Call 719-540-2192 for more information about this program.