By Erica Gadbois
When Desirae and Spencer Lee visited Alexa’s Playful Learning Academy for Young Children (PLAYC), it was love at first sight. While searching for a school that would nurture and embrace their then 3-year-old son, Parker, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a specialist at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence directed them toward Alexa’s PLAYC.
It just so happened that the school, which provides a unique, supportive and inclusive learning environment for both children on the autism spectrum and typically developing children, was about to host a tour for prospective families. After meeting the staff and hearing more about what Alexa’s PLAYC offers, the Lees were confident they had found a home. “He’s going to really get a chance to blossom and let his personality come through,” Desirae recalls thinking.
Blossom he did. Parker, who experiences some social and sensory symptoms of ASD, has been consistently growing his interpersonal skills, and the changes in his peer interactions were “almost immediate,” says Desirae. Because ASD varies so greatly between individuals, “We didn’t know what [future] his condition held,” she continues, and recounts her memories of watching Parker hang by the sidelines on the playground. “I never thought he would play with other kids. Now he has friends.”
But a slightly creepy-crawly — and entirely endearing — love of Parker’s would soon align perfectly with a new addition to Alexa’s PLAYC and take his progress to even greater heights. Through Autism Speaks’ community grant program, which has awarded more than $270,000 to San Diego County organizations, the school was able to revamp one of its outdoor spaces and add a bountiful garden to the mix. Designed to facilitate interactive education and involve kids in caring for plants and harvesting veggies, the garden also gave Parker a natural connection to one of his favorite things — bugs. “He loves bugs,” Desirae says emphatically, “especially spiders. They’re one of the things that get him to open up and start talking.”
Empowered through a topic he knows and adores, Desirae says Parker developed great confidence in initiating and holding conversations with his peers. Nora Camacho, M.A., B.C.B.A., L.M.F.T., a behavior specialist at Alexa’s PLAYC, agrees. “[He has] made wonderful progress, largely due to his participation in the garden.” She also uses the same apt phrase Desirae did when describing Parker’s evolution — “blossomed.” One of his latest communication milestones happened when he had a poster up at school showcasing photos of him having fun with his family. “His friends would ask about the pictures, and he’d share stories,” Desirae explains.
In addition to flourishing alongside his classmates, Parker is making strides at home. Desirae credits the individualized feedback staff provide her and Spencer, which allows them to help Parker build upon what he works on at school. “Overall, he has just learned so much — everything from social to [improving] wandering behaviors to sensory issues,” she says, “[and] slowly but surely, [he is] learning to eat more things.” It is common for children with ASD to have selective food habits, but Parker has expanded his repertoire with favorites including yogurt, apples, bananas and, most recently, waffles. He is also growing more and more comfortable engaging with kids outside of school.
Now 4, Parker will stay at Alexa’s PLAYC until he heads to kindergarten at age 5. In the meantime, he will continue to hone his skills, make friends and show one his newest classmates — his little sister — around the garden he loves so much. That, and perhaps work toward a career in comedy. “He’s the sweetest, funniest kid,” muses Desirae. “He wants to make everyone laugh, and we love it! We never thought that would be possible when he was diagnosed.”
Published Fall 2018