Five-year-old Cole Keating came into the kitchen where his mother Lea, little brother Brady and I were chatting. He offered me his hand and said, “Hi, my name is Cole.” His mother asked Cole to repeat the handshake while looking me in the eye. He did exactly what she told him to do. To Lea, this is a huge victory for her son, and as she told me their story, I too was amazed at what this little boy has accomplished.
When Cole was 16 months old, he was diagnosed with speech and cognitive delays, and, later, with autism. Only two years ago, he had no language skills. Raising an autistic child led Lea into the world of learning disabilities as she tried to figure out who her son was and how she could help him. In her quest she has helped countless other parents get to know their own autistic children.
After Cole was diagnosed, Lea read everything she could find about the disorder. She took Cole to different venues to play with other children, including reading time at the local library, gymnastics and music classes. “I always had the difficult child,” she remembers. “We would both leave in tears because he just didn’t participate.” Sometimes just as Lea thought that Cole was responding to a song or an exercise, it would end, the teacher would move on to the next activity, and the moment would be lost.
After observing Cole’s behavior, another parent told Lea about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Lea learned that because SPD is always present in children with autism, they are at a high risk for many emotional, social and educational problems, including the inability to make friends or be part of a group. Often labeled as out of control or uncooperative, these children can ultimately suffer from anxiety and depression or aggression as a by-product of the disorder.
The key to helping Cole, Lea found, was sensory integration. She had noticed his keen reaction to a marching band song played during his music therapy. “Cole was like a sponge,” she says. “I started to see how powerful music was.”
Working with a cadre of professionals can get very expensive, but Lea saw the potential of integrating the skill set of each therapist as a way to reach Cole and other children. “Our goals are all the same,” she says. “All of them have a piece that they bring to the children and I brought them all together.” She came up with a creative way to help pay for the therapy. “I hired a movement therapist, and I got two other families involved. We split the cost and put together a play date. The kids had a great time and it also gave parents a place to be social.”
Lea founded Sensory Street Kids three years ago as a way to bring together different therapists to build a multi-disciplinary curriculum with different sensory activities. Sensory Street Kids’ curriculum includes three unique music and movement classes: LaLaLanguage for children from 15 months old to 2 ½ years who are learning to talk, which integrates them in a social situation while they sing and dance. Social Circle is for children 2 ½ years to 4 years old, which teaches them impulse control and taking turns with music and movement. Me and My Energy is a movement class for the high-energy child, with its sensory-based activities, dancing and obstacle courses.
“For my son, learning how to control his SPD was our ‘missing piece,’ “ Lea says. “We worked with a wonderful occupational therapist who gave us a sensory diet.” It’s not a food diet, she explains, but a variety of activities incorporated into the children’s day designed to help regulate their senses. Adding these simple activities into their playtime several times a day allows the child to become calm, focused and receptive to learning.
All of Sensory Street Kids’ classes are filled with these sensory activities. They enable the kids to be actively involved during the class while showing their parents how to incorporate these exercises into their daily lives. “SPD and the sensory diet are really at the heart of Sensory Street Kids,” Lea says, “and I’m really trying to spread awareness.”
Sensory Street Kids classes are held across Long Island in pre-schools and libraries. There is a fee for service, but Lea explains that the prices are in line with other typical music and movement programs. A Sensory Street Kids class usually costs less than a therapist’s insurance co-pay. “It doesn’t replace therapy,” Lea explains, “but some kids bring their therapists with them, and then apply the skills they are working on.”
Lea is getting mail from across the county from parents who want to start similar programs themselves. Lea says that best-selling author and actress Jenny McCarthy, who’s become active in raising awareness of autism since her own child was diagnosed, has dubbed them the Warrior Moms, because some know more about occupational therapy than their therapists do. To help these groups, Lea has put together a training manual, a curriculum and a licensing program and now has Sensory Street Kids programs in Miami, Chicago and Washington.
She has many projects in development, including an elementary level class for music and movement and an ESL program. A parent from Pennsylvania asked Lea about developing a Sunday School program. “I never brought my kids to Sunday School,” Lea says. But with the integrated program that she’s developing, many parents will soon be able to take their autistic children to religious services, too.
“We can empower parents and show that these kids can be part of society,” Lea says. “We have a formula that works by giving parents the ability to communicate with their children.”
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