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Forest-based Center for Pediatric Therapies opens day school serving students with autism

Forest-based Center for Pediatric Therapies opens day school serving students with autism


A local rehabilitation center for children with a variety of neurological, orthopedic and developmental disorders is now offering an education program at its business in Forest.

The Center for Pediatric Therapies, founded in 2001, is a full-service rehabilitation clinic serving children from birth through age 21.

About a month ago, the center, at 305 Gristmill Dr., began offering a private day school for students with autism spectrum disorders.

The new private education program, called “Building Blocks Center for Children with Autism,” is an accredited private school for children ages 2 to 14 with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.

Barker said the center hopes to prepare the students to become contributing members of society.

“It is our responsibility to prepare the students for life outside of the classroom,” she said.

The school is licensed by the Virginia Department of Education and accredited by the Virginia Association of Independent Special Education Facilities.

Kristen Barker, executive director and co-founder of CPT, said services of the center are delivered in the most appropriate environment for the child, whether that is in the home, day care, school or an outpatient facility. Staff members include occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, educators and behavior specialists.

By individualizing learning opportunities using the principles of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, and using research-based best practices in instruction, she said students will demonstrate significant gains in the areas of communication, socialization, behavior, functional skills and academics.

ABA is based on the scientific principles of operant conditioning to build socially significant skills and reduce inappropriate behaviors, Barker said.

“ABA is actually the preferred method and model for behavior modification and in treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders,” Barker said. “So, we can provide those services and the education setting, through the private day school, or for those students that need additional services, outside of school.”

The program is partnered with Lynchburg-area public schools. Its goal is not to replace the school system but to provide additional support beyond a typical classroom, Barker said.

David Smith, director of education at the center, said the Building Blocks program will have no more than 20 students at a time and will teach independent living skills outside of the classroom.

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“We don’t let autism define the student; we let the student define the autism,” he said.

He said the program provides an opportunity for students to be successful in an environment that meets their needs and teaches skill in the classroom as well as in life.

Megen Brummett, occupational therapist and clinical manager at the center, said clients vary widely in their ages and diagnoses so it’s important they are looked at as individuals so staff can piece together what their specific needs are and develop a plan for them.

Staff members work with the students on speech therapy, understanding language and helping them effectively communicate.

“And also we work with the social aspects of language to kind of help children better engage with their peers from a social aspect for understanding social norms,” she said.

For physical therapy, depending on diagnosis, staff members help children gain gross motor skills to be able to be as independent as possible.

“So whether that’s learning to roll and crawl, or learning to walk, or just generally gaining strength to make their movement patterns more efficient so that overall they’re more independent and functional in their gross motor skills,” Brummett said.

In occupational therapy, younger children might learn how to use a zipper, tie their shoelaces or work on handwriting skills. Older children might be learning how to use a microwave or make a simple meal for themselves.

Jennifer Walls, mother of six-year-old Lucy, who has Down Syndrome, said her daughter started at CPT three years ago.

“From moment one, I felt welcomed and loved,” she said in an email to The News & Advance. “It’s a safe place to grow and learn.”

She said the staff has worked hard to accommodate Lucy’s needs as well as with her family’s changing schedules.

Walls said Lucy went from just starting to walk to doing handstands and running on a treadmill, even walking backwards on it with the help from her physical therapist at CPT.

“They teach me what to do at home to continue her progress,” Walls said of the staff who work with Lucy. “They are our family and Lucy’s best friends. When COVID hit, they didn’t miss a beat. Telehealth started right away not missing a session, and when we needed to come back in person they were ready.”

Barker said she thinks it is important for people to be patient with individuals with autism and their families.

“The largest concern we hear from families is they feel like they can’t go out into the community without feeling judgement for the possible behaviors that may be presented as the result of a child being upset or having a sensory reaction. And to someone else that just looks like a behavior problem, and why doesn’t that parent have control over their child, when there really is a physiological reaction that is happening for that child at that time,” she said.

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