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Tuscaloosa, AL: New autism pre-K opens; 'We knew we needed a preschool program'

May 2, 2023, Tuscaloosa (AL} News: Arts 'n Autism opens new pre-K readiness program with sensory room

Behind the blue door at Arts 'n Autism in Tuscaloosa lies a new program focused on children with autism who are preparing for life in the public school system. The 4-K Readiness program, a pre-K initiative begun in January, seeks to help children make the adjustment into the social environment in public schools.

A huge part of the transition involves managing sensory input. Jan Sikes, co-founder and executive director of Arts 'n Autism, said this is a new step along the journey to help people with autism.

"We knew we needed a preschool program and what we have now is a 4K Readiness program. When our children hit kindergarten, they often go to special ed classes. If we prepare them properly in pre-K, they can go with their typical peers to kindergarten. It sets up a successful inclusion opportunity for them in K-12," Sikes said.

The problem was one of space. Wayne Williams owned a building next door to Arts 'n Autism on Seventh Street, but Sikes said they did not have the money to buy it. Their Learning Independence for Education and Employment Program (LIFEE) program had recently moved to the Stillman College campus, vacating a small building that only needed renovation. Sikes applied for a grant from the Holle Family Foundation to get the ball rolling on the new program.

"The Holle Family Foundation awarded us $30,000 to refurbish these rooms and set up a program for pre-K," Sikes said. The foundation is named after Everett Hughes Holle, a University of Alabama graduate who had a 40-year career in the broadcasting industry and earned the rank of brigadier general in the Army….

"A sensory room helps them regulate their sensory input. It is sometimes too much. A sensory room creates a sense of calm for them. Even though that may be driving us crazy, they will come back to the classroom calmer because they have had that sensory input. All the senses are engaged," Sikes said….

Makayal Turner teaches the 4-K kids and she believes the work they are doing will make the transition to public school much easier for the children….

"The city schools were able to consult with us and help us get the smart board at their cost, which was a huge savings of about $5,000. They provided some IT support to help us get it set up. Ultimately, we are helping the school system by preparing these kids. They can go straight into a regular kindergarten and make it," Sikes said.

The final piece of the puzzle for this phase of Arts 'n Autism's growth was a grant obtained from the Mildred and Herbert Warner Foundation, which gave the organization $43,000 to pay off existing mortgage debt on their two buildings. Both of the existing structures are now paid for. Sikes said she still has her eye on the building next door because the program is growing and has no space.

"This is our pilot program and we would like to do this again, going forward with a full classroom and more kids," Sikes said.

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