Atlanta preschool teaches autistic and 'typical' two-year-old's social skills

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Nigel Odom is just 2, but he's loving this whole preschool thing.

"He loves coming to school every day," Jenny Odom, Nigel's mother, says.  "From the time we put on his jacket and ask him if he's ready to go to school, he starts hopping around and he runs to the front door."

Nigel is one 12 students in Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Marcus Autism Center's new 2-year old preschool which opened in February. Half of the students in the program are typically-developing.

Half, like Nigel, have been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum.

"He can be a little cautious sometimes, and he tends to play in his own little world, do his own little thing," Jenny Odom says.

Nigel's parents and pediatrician started seeing some red flags when Nigel was about 12 months old.

He played alone, didn't seem to engage with or empathize with others, and would sometimes repeat the same movements. But hearing the diagnosis of Autism was hard, his mother says.

"I mean it comes to a point where you just want to tell one or two people, 'Please, just help me. Please just help me get my child caught up.  Help me do what I need to do,'" Jenny Odom explains.

So, finding this intensive, early intervention program at Marcus Autism Center felt like a godsend.

"I'm loving it," his mother says.  " I'm loving that Nigel is in a full-day (program).  You could say that's a lot for a 2-year old, but it's great for him."

Lindy Morgan, the co-director of the Marcus Autism Center preschool program, says they're pushing communication, collaboration, and group activities, to build up the children's social skills. 

"They're learning the routines so well," Morgan says.  "We're actually pleasantly surprised how much of the day they're doing activities together.

Of course. you have upsets, because they're 2 year olds.  If there weren't, it wouldn't be a typical program."

The kids are too young to even know what Autism is. 

Still, in a way, they're teaching each other how to be social, at a critical time, early in their brain development.

Eight weeks in, Nigel Odom is already speaking more, his personality coming out.

"Within the first few weeks, he was already looking forward to seeing his friends," Jenny Odom says.  "We could see a marked difference in how he was interacting with us and with other kids. So instead of being in his own little world, and playing with trains by himself, he plays with his sister more at home, or he plays with other kids when we're out."

The preschool program also allows Autism researchers to study which early-interventions are most helpful to children on the autism spectrum.

"We're going to be consistently evaluating what we're doing, and tweaking the curriculum, and really trying to improve the science of educating young children," Lindy Morgan says.

The Marcus Autism Center is still accepting 2-year olds into its preschool program.

Because the emphasis is on building communication and social skill, children need to be able to express themselves and learn in a group setting. They will begin expanding the school to include 3-year olds in the fall of 2018.  A year later, the program hopes to admit 4-year olds.