AUGUSTA — B.L. Lippert’s son, Lincoln, was on the waiting list for the Children’s Center in Augusta for two weeks before being accepted into the prekindergarten program.
Now, the waiting list is 100 names deep.
Lippert, a teacher at Cony Middle and High School, learned of the Children’s Center after Lincoln was diagnosed on the autism spectrum just after the boy’s third birthday. Some of Lippert’s special education co-workers recommended the center.
“We thought it was the best thing for Lincoln,” Lippert said. “We went there and the waiting list was around two weeks. Now the waiting list is way longer than that.”
The Children’s Center is expanding its Augusta location by 14,000 square feet, and will be able to reach about 250 children for prekindergarten and outpatient services.
The outpatient area will be expanded, too. Occupational and speech therapy are also available at the center. Children with mental health needs can also be accommodated in the program, along with children who have complex medical needs.
The center specializes in autism and behavior support programs, and works directly with children to figure out their needs and preferences to create a learning environment that will “bridge the gap” in learning development.
Executive Director Jeffrey Johnson, who is also a clinician at the center, said almost all of the children there are on the autism spectrum, have special needs or have intellectual disabilities. Johnson said by the time most children are 6 years old, 95% of their neurotransmitter pathways are developed.
“Special needs kids are developing just as quickly,” he said. “They don’t slow down because of special needs.”
He said there is a short window between birth and about age 6 to make an impact on how most children learn and process their life skills.
Johnson said each child receives specialized care based on preferences and needs. Classrooms typically have three or four children, so each child can receive exactly what he or she needs.
Johnson said the center is inclusive and “typical developing” students are welcome to attend prekindergarten at the facility. The connection between “typical developing” children and those on the autism spectrum can be beneficial for all and for their learning, he said.
“They can motivate each other in ways adults can’t,” Johnson said.
Lippert said Lincoln’s involvement and experience at the Children’s Center made his transition to kindergarten smoother than expected. The professionals at the center were able to help the Lippert family form an individualized education program specific to Lincoln, and were able to work with his teachers at Lincoln Elementary School in Augusta before Lincoln’s arrival to school.
“Each kid with autism is different from other kids with autism,” Lippert said. “What may work for him may not work for others. They knew of tips on what makes Lincoln happy, and they were able to pass it on.”
The center’s expansion is to begin later this year and allow for more classrooms, specialized service areas and expanded administrative space, according to Johnson. The expansion will also mean adding between 4o and 50 employees.
Telehealth options will be available for children. The center hopes to reach kids in rural areas outside the center’s four locations in Augusta, Farmington, Skowhegan and Waterville.
Lippert is now on the board of directors for the Children’s Center and said he would “help out with the center in any way he can” after seeing it change Lincoln’s life.
“I think it’s changed my viewpoint of what every kid is capable of,” he said. “I think a lot of times we do things too quickly, and I think the Children’s Center has showed me what having patience and confidence means for kids.”