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GIANT Steps makes progress with autism

By Dominic Valente daily Herald - | Mar 20, 2017
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David Powers, 4, holds hands with aide Paul Richardson during recess at the GIANT Steps Autism Preschool at Foothill Elementary School on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Orem. The school has unique services for families with children on the autism spectrum, boasting small classrooms of 12 students. DOMINC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Aide Paul Richardson boosts up a student at the GIANT Steps Autism Preschool at Foothill Elementary School on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Orem. GIANT Steps offers a wide range of techniques and methods for teaching, including speed therapy, hands-on learning and more. DOMINC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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David Powers, third from left, stands in a line with his fellow students at the GIANT Steps Autism Preschool at Foothill Elementary School on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Orem. GIANT Steps is an extremely effective program, but with classrooms being so small, there is a large waiting list for parents. DOMINC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Westin, left, and aide Megan Nichols participate in arts and crafts at the GIANT Steps Autism Preschool at Foothill Elementary School on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Orem. GIANT Steps offers a wide range of techniques and methods for teaching, including speed therapy, hands-on learning and more. DOMINC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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David Powers participates in a music session at the GIANT Steps Autism Preschool at Foothill Elementary School on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Orem. When Powers was first diagnosed with autism, he was nearly non-verbal, never made eye contact, and exhibited the typical behaviors of someone with autism; after participating in GIANT Steps, he now sings, socializes with his classmates and friends, and according to his mom, his demeanor has improved greatly. DOMINC VALENTE, Daily Herald

Do it for the kids.

The age-old cliché meant to convey the love and sacrifice that adults have for their innocent, pure counterparts, doesn’t ring any truer than at GIANT Steps Autism Preschool in Orem.

“We have parents coming in on a constant basis to help out with things even without us asking,” said Michael King, the program manager at GIANT Steps. “It’s really an awesome team.”

GIANT Steps Autism Preschool is an ambitious program, aimed at helping students on the autism spectrum to get a leg up at an early age and to learn basic skills that will help them for the rest of their lives.

The school is located at Foothill Elementary, with two other locations in Provo and Saratoga Springs. The Foothill school has 3 classrooms, each with 12 students. Within each classroom, students enjoy a ratio of 1 adult to every 2 children, which offers an intimate and enriching experience at the preschool stage.

“I think we are really lucky to have a ratio of 2 to 1 like that,” said Janeen McFadden, the program director at GIANT Steps.

What’s more, the methods yield results.

“We incorporate all research-backed methods by ABA (applied behavior analysis) practices, and this is something we pride ourselves on,” King said. “That’s something that a lot of people look for when they look at programs like this.”

David Powers, a 4-year-old student in the program, is one such example of big progress.

“Before (the program), David didn’t make eye contact or understand emotion. He was almost a doormat in that he didn’t react to anything,” said Emily Powers, David’s mom. “Kids would steal his toys and conk him on the head and he wouldn’t react.”

But after spending time at the school, things turned around for David and his progress in social settings.

“He was just barely, barely talking when he started, and now he talks non-stop … He’s engaged,” Emily Powers said. “He didn’t really have an imagination before and now he’s doing all of these imaginative things. He gets the social back and forth that he didn’t have before.”

What’s more, David has had physical therapy, and now he can run during recess, he knows how to write now, as well as read some. He’s engaged in music, and often is found socializing with his classmates at the school.

One obstacle that parents encounter when they have a child who is on the autism spectrum is finding all of the service that their child needs. Sometimes certain specialists only do one thing, or a few things, and that means families are traveling around the county and cherry-picking services that cater to their child.

Emily Powers was one such parent — driving across the county for feeding therapy to then trekking again to horse therapy, then another place for speech therapy. It was exhausting, as she put it.

“Here, he has everything from feeding therapy to speech therapy … He just has everything all at once,” she said. “And to have all of those services all at once, it just made me want to give back.”

Powers, on top of being a regular volunteer, is also helping out with the upcoming auction happening Thursday at the Provo City Library at Academy Square. The auction is aimed at raising funds for another classroom sometime in the future, as well as at-home care that may be available in the future.

While the services for families are free, it costs about $40,000 per student a year for GIANT Steps to give care to its students. Some of that money comes from Medicaid, some from the Legislature, and some from outside donors such as the Utah County Commissioners, who hold an annual golf tournament and raise about $10,000 a year for the program.

“It’s expensive, and that’s why opening a new classroom would be ambitious,” said McFadden.

According to McFadden, the cost of a new classroom, overall, would cost somewhere in ballpark of $250,000.

However, the team plans to hopefully get home care off the ground as one of their next projects. This would be a cheaper way to get families care, without losing quality of care.

Essentially, a specialist would visit a student at home and would perform all the things that happen in a normal school classroom, just in the comfort of one’s home. This would cost around $20,000 a year, half the price of a full year’s care for a student in a classroom setting.

This would potentially also cut down on the large waiting list that families are put on when they hear of the program. As of now, there are about 100 people waiting for 24 Legislature-funded spots; a wait list that could last for months or longer.

Another unique part of the GIANT Steps program is that it is under the umbrella of the Wasatch Mental Health programs, and so they are able to glean resources and aid from them as well. This gives the school an advantage that some others may not have.

While prospective families might be looking for a place for their child, the true need keeps coming back to results. How will my child progress? Will he learn skills that will last, and be ingrained in them in the long run?

Emily Powers, whose son went from nearly nonverbal to an imaginative, vibrant person, believes in the results of GIANT Steps.

“When you see the difference that it starts making, and then you see the statistics that show how much of a benefit it is to society and to families and to everybody … it’s a cause worth supporting.”

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