All the Support They Need

At four years old, twins Adrianna and Alli­son are as different as two sisters can be. Adrianna is gentle and affectionate while Allison is strong and determined. But despite their differences, the young sisters share one key characteristic: they both have autism.

Diagnosed at 18 and 21 months old respectively, each received Early Intervention to begin address­ing their developmental delays. Based on their ther­apists’ recommendations, the girls were enrolled at the Staten Island Early Learning Center (SI­ELC), one of two schools VOA-Greater New York operates for children with cognitive and language impairments, social or emotional issues, and sen­sory and motor delays. In this cozy, four-classroom school the girls could receive all the therapies they needed to prepare them for kindergarten — in­cluding the highly individualized, evidence-based therapy called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

When Allison first arrived at the school, she was completely non-verbal, highly anxious and acutely sensitive to sound. But fairly quickly, her experi­ence at the SIELC was life changing. Allison’s anx­iety abated and she began to regain her speech. By the end of her first year, Allison was ready to move from her class of eight children to a class of twelve, where the children needed less intensive interventions. Parents Dawn and Ritchie credit the skill and dedication of the school’s teachers and therapists with the strides the children made that first year.

“The 12:1:2 classroom, with more children and fewer teachers and assistants, is helping Allison tremendously,” says Ritchie. “She’s around kids who are speaking and more independent, and she’s showing much of the same behavior — it’s bring­ing out all that she has inside her.”

Adrianna, in her smaller 8:1:4 classroom where each child receives ABA tailored to their unique needs, is making strides too. Where once she strug­gled with even basic skills like stacking blocks, she is now learning to focus on a task and participates in activities like yoga, music and story time. 

Not only is the SIELC a haven for its students, the parents have a tremendous support system in each other. Dawn, who heads the parent council says, “I love this school, the teachers and therapists… everyone!” As Allison and Adrianna finish their second and final year at the SIELC and prepare to transition to kindergarten, Dawn and Ritchie sa­vor the time they have left at the little school that has given their girls a strong foundation.

“The girls are coming to a place every day where they’re loved.”