Cases of autism across the United States have increased over the past several years. Whether it is because there are more outside influences that lead to children being born autistic, or better testing has led to better diagnosis, this is a fact.
Children in the local area who are diagnosed with autism have a special school they can attend that helps them, and in turn their parents, deal with the malady in positive ways.
LUDIC, which stands for Lee University Developmental Inclusive Classroom, began operation in Cleveland and Bradley County 13 years ago. It is led by Dr. Tammy Johnson, who has been at the school for 11 of those 13 years.
“I can tell this was my calling,” Dr. Johnson said of working with the children at LUDIC. “Once I got involved here, and I have done a little bit of everything in education, I found that this is my favorite thing to do. I love it, love it, love it.”
Working with autistic children is not an easy task, as their symptoms range from inattentiveness, to inability to speak, to periodic times of uncontrolled screaming. Yet Dr. Johnson and the staff at LUDIC are making great strides with these children every day.
When it started, LUDIC was not primarily working with only autistic children.
“LUDIC is a private school for students with a diagnosis of autism, but when we first began, we didn’t foresee this huge rise in the prevalence rate of children with autism, so originally, it wasn’t exclusively for students with a diagnosis of autism,” Dr. Johnson explained. But the need grew so quickly and that organizers knew it needed to concentrate on these children.
Lee University agreed that LUDIC was a much needed program in the local community, and four years ago, the program also received its first United Way grant. This grant was made possible through the Bradley Memorial Health Endowment Fund.
“Without the grant, we would only be serving about half to three-quarters of the students we are seeing,” Dr. Johnson said. “It’s a huge part of our being able to serve this many children.”
Presently, there are 16 full-time students and seven part-time students attending LUDIC. The full-time students attend from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
LUDIC has 11 full-time staff and five part-time staff, with one student teacher. Many of these staff members come from Lee University, so it benefits not only the children, but those continuing their education in respective fields of learning.
Dr. Johnson said LUDIC uses applied behavior analysis, which is the gold star treatment for students with a diagnosis of autism. This treatment stresses positive reinforcement when appropriate.
The biggest change in LUDIC since it began 13 years ago occurred last year, as the program moved to the old First Baptist Church building on Church Street. It had been at the former Mayfield Elementary School for several years.
“This has been a great move,” Dr. Johnson said. “We have more room, and have been able to separate the kids into smaller groups. Many of them will learn better when they are not mixed in with a larger group.”
Children may begin at LUDIC as young as 3 years of age, though Dr. Johnson said they have actually had some even younger.
“Typically, we will start taking kids at age 3. We have on occasion, through Tennessee Early Intervention Program, taken children under the age of 3,” she said. “Right now, the ages that we have are the oldest that we have ever had, and there is a need to keep increasing the age limit.”
With April being Autism Awareness Month, Dr. Johnson said it is a great time for everyone to learn more about autism, and if they may feel their child is exhibiting symptoms that might be autistic, that they have their child examined.
“They should take their child to the pediatrician and make sure there is not some other reason they are acting the way they are,” she said. “Often time, a parent may think that their child might be deaf, when it could be diagnosed as autism.”
She said that there are some “red flags” that might pop up that should be checked to see if they are related to autism.
In general, if the children are not interacting with people, either adults or children as kids their age normally would, if they are not communicating and using words, of if they had words earlier and those words go away, or if they are not looking at an individual when they are trying to communicate, they should be checked,” Dr. Johnson explained.
Patrick Long, United Way of Bradley County vice president of Community Impact, said LUDIC provides a much needed service, and is proud of the collaboration between United Way and the program to serve these children.
“The learning differences that a-typically developing students have require high levels of individualization and support. LUDIC leadership and staff have the passion and expertise to deliver those services with excellence and care,” he said.
“Dr. Johnson and her staff do an incredible job and we are thrilled with this partnership between the United Way and Lee University.”
Dr. Johnson said there will be a symposium at Lee University on June 21 and 22 where the public may also learn more about autism, and she suggested anyone with any concerns should attend.
For more information on the LUDIC program, Dr. Johnson can be reached at (423) 614-8190, or she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
-- ### --
Sarah Brown, a teacher at LUDIC, works with Logan Porter, 7, a student at the program. LUDIC is now housed at the old First Baptist Church.
LUDIC provides school for children diagnosed with autism, and serves children ages 3 and up. Here, Caroline Eaves, 12, a student at LUDIC, works with Lindsey Self, one of the teachers there, on a word project.