The Kids Learning Loft appears to be a typical day care center with carpeted rooms containing an array of toys.
But the children who play with those toys on the third floor of 436 Willis Ave. in Williston Park are not typical: they are children afflicted with autism.
Kids Learning Loft co-owners and directors Jennifer Kourassanis-Velasquez and Christine Saunier-Cinotti are applying innovative techniques they’ve developed over years of working with autistic children in separate careers in the business they opened on June 1.
The two women became best friends as Mineola neighbors over the past several years, and recognized a void in the area for parents of autistic children seeking therapeutic treatment.
“There’s really nothing in the area offering these services,” she said. “The biggest problem parents face with children on the autistic spectrum in social skills.”
Kids Learning Loft applies principles of applied behavior analysis, a psychological approach that seeks to modify human behaviors as part of a learning or treatment process.
Most of their on-site practice in their offices at 436 Willis Ave. in Williston Park comprises teaching small classes of children suffering from differing degrees of autism lessons in different social skills with the assistance of typically developing peers close to their own ages.
A Social Skills class offers a variety of activities to autistic children, seeking to teach them to take turns playing with toys, making eye contact, understanding and recognizing social cues, answering and asking questions and expressing their feelings. A Breakfast Club class aims at teaching school-age autistic children social dining skills. A class in Joint Action Routines puts the children in different roles to work with each other to accomplish a common task such as making iced tea.
Kids Learning Loft’s course list also includes YogaABA, a class that employs a combination of soothing music, along with different postures and breathing exercises with the goal of calming the children.
“What’s different about us is we use typically developing children as peer role models,” Kourassanis-Velasquez said.
The peer models, who are usually slightly older than the group of autistic children they’re working with are recruited through friends and in collaboration with local churches, she said. The weekly classes Kids Learning Loft offers are hour-long sessions with groups no larger than four children. The children, separated in the classes by age, range from five years to 16 years old.
The two educators also provide a range of consultation services in clients’ homes and are currently treating children attending school in the Herricks and Mineola School Districts.
Kourassanis-Velasquez holds a bachelor of arts in psychology from Queens College and is attending her last semester as a graduate student towards completing her masters degree in applied behavior analysis from Queens College. She is a behavior consultant for several Nassau County school districts where she restructures classrooms, provides staff training, conducts functional behavior analysis, designs and implements behavior intervention plans and applied behavior analysis curriculum programs for school aged children.
Saunier-Cinotti holds her masters in elementary education from Queens College and is completing her advanced certificate coursework for her board certified behavior analyst certification. She has been providing applied behavior analysis behavior therapy in home-based, clinical, and classroom settings to a broad range of children on the spectrum for several years.
She said she was motivated to get into the field after spending time around her cousin’s autistic child.
“That’s what made interested in the work,” Saunier-Cinott said. “I wanted to do something about it.”
Kourassanis-Velasquez was on a completely different career track as a business manager at a Honda dealership. She said she decided to go back to school, originally to become a speech therapist, and segued in concentrating on learning and behavior in her degree work at Queens College.
She said Kids Learning Loft seeks to provide parents with an alternative solution to addressing specific behavioral issues of their autistic children.
“The biggest battle is that parents aren’t given resources,” she said. “They don’t get the support they really need.”
Kids Learning Loft is drawing a strong response thus far, with a two-week summer day camp later this month already filled.
As part of their practice, Saunier-Cinott and Kourassanis-Velasquez are collaborating with a children’s hospital to conduct educational seminars on autism treatment.
Eventually the two women hope to create their own foundation, akin to Autism Speaks!, to raise funds and awareness to combat the disorder.
Further information about Kids Learning Loft program offerings is available online at www.kidslearningloft.com or by calling 516-741-0729.