Preschool for students with autism expands

Circle time at The Academy, an early learning program for children with autism spectrum disorders that is based at Nova Southeastern University's Mailman Segal Center.
Circle time at The Academy, an early learning program for children with autism spectrum disorders that is based at Nova Southeastern University's Mailman Segal Center.
Mailman Segal Center


•  The Academy at Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University, 954-262-7168 or 954-262-7129, nova.edu/mscacademy


Jeffrey DeMott’s son Tyler may only be three, but, as a father, DeMott has already started to worry about where he will send his son to kindergarten when his little boy is ready.

Tyler, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age, has been going to the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University west of Fort Lauderdale since he was about two years-old.

Now DeMott won’t have to worry – Tyler can stay where he is and continue to develop in the same “nurturing environment.”

The Academy at the center will open Aug. 19 and offer individualized programs for 5- and 6-year-olds with autism spectrum disorders.

“It’s a huge relief,” said DeMott.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do. Nothing compares to this school.”

Susan Kabot, the executive director of the Autism Institute at Nova Southeastern University, said the private kindergarten and first grade academy is meant to be a continuation of Nova’s pre-school program for children with autism spectrum disorders that now has about 140 students. The pre-school program, which is run in cooperation with the Broward County Public School System, has a private component so students who don’t live in Broward can still attend.

“We are filling in the gaps,” she said.

Previously, when students “aged” out of the pre-school program, parents were forced to find another private or public program.

“We started the academy in response to a growing need,” Kabot said.

The $35,000-a-year academy, which will run 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and follow the Broward County Public Schools calendar, will offer small classes with two students per teacher. Students can attend the school on a McKay Scholarship, which is offered by the state. No transportation or food service will be provided.

Within the walls of a kid-friendly classroom with educational posters and student artwork, the students will get individualized attention to focus on communication, behavior and independent functioning.

The teacher works with paraprofessionals and a team of specialists, including an autism specialist, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist and behavior analyst.

“We develop a program based on all of the child’s needs,” said Kabot.

While the academy for 5 and 6-year-olds is new, Heather O’Brien, the Starting Right program coordinator, said the Mailman Segal Center has been working with children with autism for more than two decades through education and research.

The Mailman Segal Center for Human Development has several programs for children with autism. Like Tyler, many children start in the Starting Right program for ages 18 months to 36 months and then go into the Baudhin Preschool. Parents drive from as far away as Homestead and West Palm Beach for the program, Kabot said.

Kabot said the prevalence of children being diagnosed with autism continues to rise – now with one out of every 50 children being diagnosed.

“With more and more people being identified, the need becomes greater,” she said.

For Tyler, the Starting Right program and the pre-school have been “amazing,” said his father. Tyler’s pediatrician noticed developmental delays between 12 months and 18 months. DeMott spent months visiting schools, but couldn’t find a single program that met all of his son’s needs. When he found the Mailman Segal Center, he said it was like an “oasis.” In addition to helping his son learn and grow, the program offers guidance to parents.

“We are learning as much as he is,” said DeMott.

When students enter the academy, each child will be given a curriculum-based assessment at the start of the year, again in January and at the end of the year as a “tracking process.” The parents and the students are involved in developing an individualized plan.

Because the center is located on the university campus, the center is also used as a training ground for speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, school and clinical psychology, applied behavior analysis, family therapy, nursing, dentistry, and pediatrics students.

“Because its university based, we are very focused on making sure that what we do is high quality as well as evidence based,” DeMott said.

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