It was more than a year ago that Megan Ruth first realized her son Kaeden Badger wasn't "doing things a normal 2-year-old should do."
"We had tremendous communication issues," Ruth recalled.
When she was told her son had autism, she enrolled him in Reaching Beyond Limits, a pre-school class at the Children's Development Center for autistic children and children with severe language delay.
"Within two months of him being at the CDC, it went from him falling on the ground and crying, to taking my hand and walking me somewhere," Ruth said.
She learns about her son's school day from a report sent home daily, documenting what he eats, says, plays with and more.
"When I ask him if he did this or that, he doesn't give me a response. He's nonverbal," Ruth said.
About a month ago, the students in Kaeden's class went on a field trip to a therapeutic horse-
riding facility. When Ruth asked her son about his day, "he stood up in his chair and started to clap. That was the first time I had gotten any feedback."
One day she visited the class to see her son spelling out his name with Scrabble tiles.
"I was blown away," she said.
On a typical school day, Kaeden joins five other preschool-aged boys. Their day begins with large headphones over their ears and a compact disc player strapped around them as they sit at the small table, waiting for snacks and juice.
Sounds and music at alternating volumes, changing from ear to ear, help engage different parts of the brain, teacher Christine King explained.
From King, therapeutic support staff member Gina Mostoller, occupational therapy assistant student Melissa Good, speech language pathologist Joan Dice and certified occupational therapy assistant Renee Cerney, the students receive personalized attention each day to help them build relationships.
"Our goal is to get the kids to interact with us," King said, while asking a student if he would like a cracker.
She and the other instructors use simple sign language while speaking about the food.
"Most of them are very low verbal," King said.
"If they don't talk, they have to have some way to communicate," Good said.
The students have to work for their snacks and toys. The instructors wait for a child to request an item.
"Sometimes it's a matter of requiring them to use their language," King said.
Autism is "a spectrum disorder," Mostoller said, which means each child's symptoms are different, ranging from verbal skills, sensitivity to different touches, lack of awareness of their body and more.
Throughout the day, the children do "heavy work" such as dragging a bag full of corn and wearing weighted vests during therapy sessions. Instructors also apply "deep pressure" by pressing against the boys' shoulders and arms.
"It gives them a sense of their bodies," Mostoller said.
Before lunch, the students rotate through "centers," each one focusing on a separate function.
In the "boxes" center, the goal is for children to work independently by sorting colors and shapes.
In the gym, Cerney activates different muscle groups with swings, scooter boards, puzzles and a climbing wall. During floor time on this day, students play, jump, laugh and discover toys one-on-one to develop "circles of communication."
"You have to get into their space and have them look at you and respond," Dice said. "A lot of the activities we do to help them organize the sensory input, helping them make sense of the world around them."
Five-year-old Jordan Kiessling is preparing to enter his second year in the program. His mother, Deborah Kiessling, said her son has made more progress in the Reaching Beyond Limits class than in other programs.
"Now he's beginning to say a lot of words. His eye contact has been a big leap for him ... When you call his name, he's responding," she said.
She credits the sensory stimulation as part of Jordan's success.
"At CDC, it's the first time I've seen more progress and results as far as eye contact, interaction with others and wanting to try things. It's really helped him a lot," Kiessling said. "I give it five stars."
Gabriel Walter, 5, has been in the class since October and is preparing to soon graduate from Reaching Beyond Limits. His father, Joe Walter, said Gabriel has become more independent, his vocabulary has improved and he now forms whole sentences.
"We have come a long way. You can carry a conversation with him now. It just kind of happened overnight," Walter said.
Although he admitted to being skeptical about the program at first, Walter said the individualized attention is helpful.
"I'd recommend it for anyone," he said of the program. "It's just awesome."