Growing Minds Center

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Growing Minds Center continues growth

Date: 12/01/2011   Time: 9:28 am

Sam loves animals and letter patterns. The seven-year-old taught himself to read, and likes to spell out phrases like "Feature Presentation" and "Merry Christmas" on the floor with letter magnets.

Trey can make just about anything out of Play Dough.

Christian is an artist, and consistently produces amazing drawings.

Harvey likes to talk about weird food combinations like hot sauce and ice cream and zucchini milkshakes. He especially loves Bernie Botts every flavor jelly beans, a candy featured in the Harry Potter book series, with flavors like earwax and frog legs.

Christine Hermsdorfer knows the idiosyncrasies of each of her nine full-time students. She knows their likes and dislikes, what they excel in, and pays particular attention to the challenges her students face.

Hermsdorfer operates The Growing Minds Center, a nonprofit school catered to children affected by autism and developmental or behavioral challenges. And while each of her students shows special gifts of their own, each faces difficulties with communication and social interaction.

"Some people think (autism is) more like mental retardation, but their IQs are very high," Hermsdorfer said. "Their communication issues get in the way of showing what they know. They're all different, but the main issue is communications and social interactions." While there is no cure for autism, therapy can reduce the symptoms.

Hermsdorfer founded The Growing Minds Center in 2008 alongside a group of parents with autistic children living in Port St. Joe. The school focuses on meeting students' needs through Applied Behavior Analysis, the most widely-used treatment for autism.

The center began as an afterschool program with five students operating out of a room at Long Avenue Baptist Church, and has since transformed into a full-day, year-round school program with its own building off Industrial Road. There are currently nine full-time students, and three students in the afterschool program, which takes place twice a week. The new building has eight rooms and 2,200 square feet, providing plenty of room for growth, and with an estimated one out of every 110 children affected by autism, the need for the center is also growing. "We definitely want to get bigger," Hermsdorfer said. "We want people to know that we're here."

Hermsdorfer recently applied for a grant to help fund a Web site and brochures for the school, in order to lay out the options that parents have in tuition aid for autistic students. As a certified private school, the center accepts state-funded McKay Scholarships for parents hoping to offset the tuition. However, no matter how much the school grows, Hermsdorfer plans on maintaining the two-to-one teacher-student ratio it operates on. 

"Whenever we get two more kids, we hire somebody else," Hermsdorfer said. "We'll never get rich, but that's what it takes." Among their nine full-time students, Hermsdorfer employs one teacher, two tutors, a behavioral analyst and a graduate student.

Each student is evaluated upon enrollment and assigned a specific learning plan, catered to their specific needs, and addressing any behaviors the student may have. Hermsdorfer said behaviors often stem from not knowing the right means to get attention, resulting in yelling, noncompliance and inappropriate behavior. Once the student improves their communication skills, the behaviors often subside. Hermsdorfer keeps a file for each student, with meticulous data logged for each task they have mastered, struggled with or needed a prompt to achieve. If the learning plan doesn't show progress, it is changed. 

At The Growing Minds Center, the school day functions much differently than a public school environment. The students receive specialized one-on-one attention, rotating in 30-minute blocks to different therapies, activities and lessons throughout the day. On a particular recent morning, Heaven and Christian are in the middle of a math lesson. Heaven plays with a panorama with toy horses as a reward. In another room, Sam works one-on-one with an instructor, focusing on his language skills. There are plastic letters scattered on the floor. Another student watches a life skills video, and in the same room, two others don headphones as they complete typing programs. The center focuses on more visual and hands-on learning. Lessons often involve identifying pictures, completing math problems with tangible objects and conducting applied problem solving. "They need things broken out into small pieces," Hermsdorfer said. "It takes a lot of patience. You have to be willing to reinforce every little thing."

The key to teaching children with autism, Hermsdorfer said, is plenty of patience and flexibility. The instructors focus on using reinforcements in their teaching by giving the students plenty of praise or by catering to their specific likes. (Harvey's reinforcement is talking about weird food; for Sam, it's animal drawings.) The students also participate in life skills classes that help them learn basic social skills like using a public restroom, identifying survival signs (like EXIT) and ordering lunch at a restaurant. The group recently took a field trip to Hungry Howie's, where the students learned how to order food at the counter, when to give the cashier the money and how to respond to any questions the cashier asked. The next field trip will be either to the recycling center or the grocery store, Hermsdorfer said.

Hermsdorfer hopes to be able to partner with local businesses in the future to provide job coaches for her older students interested in entering the workforce.

With an estimated 200,000 autistic teens set to reach adulthood in the United States in the next five years, Hermsdorfer said her ultimate goal for the students is for them to have jobs and function in mainstream society.

She said autism awareness in Gulf County has skyrocketed in the last three years alone.

When Hermsdorfer moved here 13 years ago little was known of the disorder, but since then, the spectrum has opened wider and more and more children are being diagnosed at an early age.

Most children are diagnosed around age 2, but Hermsdorfer has seen children diagnosed as young as 18 months.

Overall, she said, the mission of the Growing Minds Center is to give autistic children the potential to thrive.

"The parents are really happy and they're big supporters of what we're doing," Hermsdorfer said. "We'd just like to be able to help as many kids as we can."

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