The Roth family moved to Phoenix in Baltimore County a year ago to be closer to better services for their 7-year-old daughter, Avery, who is autistic.
By chance, their new neighbor, Katherine "Kay" Holman, was experienced in crafting inclusive programs for children with autism.
"We were still in the process of moving in when she introduced herself," Jenni Roth recalled. "I looked her up, and said, 'Oh my.' It worked out really well."
The families quickly formed a friendship that led to Holman's organizing a neighborhood group called PAW Pals. The play group is composed of a controlled number of kids — both typical-learning and autistic. During structured sessions, the youths learn how to play and socialize with one another in activities such as running a mock cafe or going on a pirate-themed treasure hunt. The group is named after the street, Princess Ann Way, where the participants live. Holman's next step is to introduce the program to schools.
"I've found that there are a lot of supports in the school setting, but when they come home, they need to socialize and connect with people in the community," Holman said. "PAW Pals gives them ways to engage. It gives them the supportive framework to play with peers."
The Roths were searching for additional programs for their daughter, who has moderate to high-functioning autism, outside the classroom. PAW Pals is geared toward typical-learning children, which appealed to them.
"All of the [other] programs focus on training the child with the disability to interact with society, as opposed to the other way around," she said. "This is kind of nice because it is taking some of the onus off of Avery and places it on some of her peers."
Holman launched PAW Pals last summer with Avery and other neighborhood children. The group met twice a week for 21/2 hours each session. The lengthy meetings allowed Holman to establish a routine and teach "play clues" or social rules specifically designed to help engage Avery in play, according to Holman.
"You want to establish a group identity," said Holman, who recommends a more intensive approach for the first three months of the program.
Now that the routine and rules have been established, the group meets every week for an activity. The program can be structured to meet the needs of individual children, according to Holman. Costs for the program can be as low as paying someone with a trained degree to lead the group in activities, according to Holman.
"The idea is that it is not a complete prescribed program," she said. "It can be individualized for your group. Some children might need a little more practice."
Teaching children — both typical-learning and autistic — the proper way to interact with one another, coupled with structured activities, has helped the once-reticent Avery break out of her shell. When she first moved to the neighborhood, Avery stood to the side while the rest of the neighborhood children played. Now she's more comfortable doing group activities.
The key, Holman said, is to teach the children the proper strategies to better communicate and socialize. Typical-developing children in the program have been taught to be more direct when speaking to Avery by, say, tapping her on the shoulder to get her attention or welcoming her by extending an open hand.
"We're training peers with ways of engaging one another," said Holman, who works as an assistant professor in the department of special education at Towson University.
Avery's brother, Mason, 9, who also participates in the program, has noticed changes in himself and his younger sister.
"Usually she would be running around and doing her own thing," Mason said. "Now I can actually tell her stuff, and she listens. I've learned how to talk to my sister."
Her mother added that Avery's favorite activity was the PAW Pals Cafe, an activity where the children set up a mock cafe, made snacks and practiced serving food to one another.
"She liked giving people her order for food," Jenni Roth said. "Her attention was maintained throughout. … Maintaining attention is always difficult, but her attention span in this environment has improved. I've seen it getting longer and longer."
The Roths and Holman are quick to point out that there is not necessarily a direct link between Avery's changes and her participation in PAW Pals. Avery participates in a different type of activity or therapy almost every day of the week.
"It's hard to point out a cause-and-effect relationship," her father said. "But [her interaction with others] certainly has gotten easier."
Holman has taken years of research and experience to craft the PAW Pals program. She based her research from a similar program she conducted in a school-based setting six years ago in Montgomery County. Holman also ran an inclusion camp at Kennedy Kreiger Institute several years ago.
"This is what makes our world go round — having this tolerance and acceptance," Holman said. "These are life skills that will serve them way beyond their academic careers. We know that if you don't have social connections, you have a significantly decreased social life."
Holman's ultimate goal is to pilot the program on a schoolwide level.
"The school would have a universal PAW Pals program," Holman explained. "The whole school would work off of these issues of respect."
While many school systems offer specialized programs, inclusion classrooms, and co-teaching models, there is still room for improvement, according to Holman.
"Unfortunately, teachers are just not adequately prepared to meet the needs of autistic children," Holman said. "We have a little bit further to go. That comes back to training. Some [teachers] have had very limited training. A lot of the schools are supporting their teachers and sending them back to school. Hopefully we'll see continued improvement in the next couple of years."
One of the greatest benefits of the program is the effect it has on the typical-learning children, Holman said.
Both of Holman's children, Liam, 7, and Lily Wynn, 5, participate, and she said the program has affected her son's behavior in school, too.
"I've observed him taking a greater awareness and looking out for students [with autism]," Holman said. "It is important as a mother and program developer that this carries over to other settings as well."
Jenni Roth has also seen a difference in Avery's brother, Mason.
"He's proud of her," she said. "He's really getting it. Before he was like, 'She's a pain.' Now he knows that everyone is different. He is so proud of her."
Mason thinks that the program should be adopted elsewhere.
"It would help them communicate with their brother or sister with autism," he said.
"It's a place where we can hang out and play," Mason said. "We're slowly learning how to play with Avery. I think a year from now, I will be able to play whatever I want with her."