An early intervention program that will teach life and social skills to young children with autism is coming to Shawnee.

Early Foundations, created by the Oklahoma Autism Center, will prepare children from 18 months to three years old to take on the public school system. The program is designed so that each child leaves toilet-trained and with one communication skill.

A collaboration between St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Shawnee Public Schools, Citizen Potawatomi Nation and OU Health Sciences Center, the program will begin with a class of three children on August 20.

“It’s the only kind of collaborative like this in the area, in the state,” said Tim Boyer, director of student ministries at St. Paul’s. “When you have a public school system, a church, a tribe and health sciences all combined into one collaborative.”

The program will teach kids using sensory-based toys, one-on-one sessions with an educator and simple communication lessons such as how to point to an object, said Kelli Marshall, who works as a replication coordinator for the Oklahoma Autism Center.

Kids will learn communication skills through private lessons two days a week, and then put them into practice by socializing with neurotypical peers –– or kids without autism –– for the other two days.

A big roadblock for kids with autism is their ability to connect with others socially, Marshall said.

“The foundation of the disorder is that they have difficulty with interacting socially with one another when they go into classrooms with kids that are typical,” Marshall said. “It’s one thing to have access to kids that are typical, but they have to be taught how to interact with them.”

The program is currently housed in St. Paul’s, alongside Pup Pack, a daycare for children of Shawnee Public Schools employees. Pup Pack will provide neurotypical children for Early Foundations two days out of the week.

Pup Pack is available to teachers at a slightly reduced cost and works around public school schedules, said Dr. April Grace, Shawnee Public Schools superintendent.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation is also in on the collaboration: the tribe donated $10,000 to go towards a new playground, will provide a salary for the paraprofessional being hired and is supplying materials for the classroom, said Bonnie Simons, childcare voucher specialist for the tribe’s Child Development Center.

“(Autism) is something that we’re seeing more and more of, even just in our facility and in our community, and we definitely want to be a part of that early prevention, so it’s not once they get into the public school system,” Simons said. “We can help take care of some of those needs before they even reach that point.”

It is difficult for families to find resources for kids with autism in Pottawatomie and surrounding counties –– especially ones that target autism early, Boyer said.

The Oklahoma Autism Center is working to start Early Foundations in rural communities where access to such resources is limited, Marshall said.

“Now, I know Shawnee isn’t considered rural when you compare it to a lot of other rural areas in Oklahoma, but it’s still a drive for parents to get to the city,” Marshall said. “And they’re not able to access the same services that they are in the Oklahoma City area.”

Anyone who wants to bring Early Foundations to their area can call the Oklahoma Autism Center and start a conversation about how to get their community involved in funding and supporting it, Marshall said.

In the future, children older than three will move to the Early Childhood Center at Shawnee Public Schools, Boyer said.

Note: This article originally stated that the Early Foundations program will move to the Early Childhood Center in the future. The article has been corrected to show that only children older than three will move.