School continues LEAP forward for
Thursday, September 28, 2006
By Sandy Trozzo
A boy in a striped shirt jumps on a
small trampoline, a huge grin on his face.
Nearby, two boys color quietly,
while four other children sift sand. Across the room, a young girl
carefully puts on a tiny oven mitt before taking something out of a
The brightly colored room looks
like a typical preschool, but it's a nationally recognized,
much-imitated model of integrating autistic children with youngsters
who are not autistic.
Operated by The Watson Institute,
LEAP Preschool in Sharpsburg will celebrate its 25th anniversary
LEAP stands for Learning
Experiences: Alternative Program for preschoolers and parents. It
was founded by Phillip S. Strain, who received a three-year federal
grant to create a model program that placed autistic children in a
classroom with those who do not have autism.
Autism is a developmental
disability that is a result of a neurological disorder and most
often affects social and language development. The cause is not
Twenty-five years ago, autism was
considered a very rare condition, with about four children in 10,000
diagnosed, said Dr. Strain, who, at the time he received the grant,
was at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland. Today,
about one in 500 children is diagnosed with autism, he said.
During his research, Dr. Strain
said, he had "pretty remarkable success" in in-creasing an autistic
child's ability to interact with peers when the child was paired
with a youngster who did not have autism. He decided to try it on a
The preschool started in Pittsburgh
in 1981 and moved to the former Sharpsburg Elementary School around
1990, said Marilyn Hoyson, chief operating officer. It also runs
preschools at Edgeworth Elementary and in Wilkinsburg.
A typical LEAP classroom consists
of four children with autism and eight to 10 who do not have autism.
The classroom operates like a regular preschool, with a special
education teacher helping the autistic children through the day,
said Nancy Rapp, program coordinator.
Studies and evaluations during the
first 10 years found that the model was a win-win for both sets of
"By having typical peers around
them, talking and playing and trying to get them engaged in play, it
helps [autistic children] to interact," Dr. Hoyson said. "They can
model the language. The more typical children you have, the better
it is for the children with autism."
The other children benefit, too.
"It's OK for typical children to be
with children with autism. They don't regress at all. They become
good play organizers. They have to verbally say to friends, 'Come
and play with me,' " Dr. Hoyson said.
"We teach them how to look at the
child, say the child's name, keep trying, tap them on the shoulder,"
anything to engage them, Ms. Rapp said.
The program provides a home
coordinator to help parents of autistic children handle shopping,
bedtimes and meal times. Parents also are given a manual to teach
basic behavioral management skills.
Amy Greiner, of Penn Hills, said
having non-autistic children in his class had helped her son,
"That's a really important
component, I think, for autistic kids, things that are missing from
other special ed programs," she said. "He does look at them. He pays
attention to what they're doing. They're real patient with him.
They'll do things over and over and over again."
Mrs. Greiner said the LEAP family
coordinator has been especially helpful because Josh-ua does not
speak. The liaison helped the family set up Joshua's room with the
types of visual schedules he follows at school and make use of
picture symbols so he can communicate more easily.
Joshua will stay at LEAP one more
year, then enter the Penn Hills School District, his mother said.
Erika Trabbold, 4, entered LEAP
last year after spending a year in another special education
preschool, where, her family said, she did not master any of her
"Within the first month [at LEAP],
she mastered a goal. She has mastered all her goals," said her
mother, Kristine Trabbold, of Penn Hills. "She started talking. They
got her to drink from a straw cup. ... She knows all her matching,
her alphabet, her numbers."
Erika will enter kindergarten next
year in a regular school. "We will miss LEAP. It has been a
tremendous place," Mrs. Trabbold said.
About 250 children with autism have
been through the program. Most have been integrated into public
schools, Ms. Rapp said. "We can get them ready for kindergarten
without a problem."
The LEAP model has been replicated
in several states and in Canada. Dr. Strain, now a professor of
educational psychology at the University of Colorado, has started
LEAP programs in that state. Dr. Hoyson and Ms. Rapp have helped set
up programs in Seattle, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Virginia,
Tennessee, Indiana and Vancouver, British Columbia. They also work
with intermediate units and school districts throughout Western
The Watson Institute will
commemorate the preschool's 25th anniversary with a conference
titled Current Issues in Early Childhood Autism at Marriott
Pittsburgh North in Cranberry. The program will include a discussion
of what the educators have learned from LEAP, a slide show, photo
albums of alumni and staff, and a quilt that features photos of the
Ms. Rapp described what she finds
rewarding about working in the program: "Watching a child enter our
program having a rough time and leaving our program having a great
time, and seeing families enter stressed and leaving having much
(Sandy Trozzo is a freelance