The Learning Experiences Alternative Program for Preschoolers and their Parents (LEAP) provides a unique preschool experience for both typically developing children, and children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. While most classrooms remain separate, the LEAP program teaches the typically developing children to communicate and help the children with autism—in one class. These children become trained in facilitating social interactions, communication, and improving cognitive development for their classmates. The LEAP program was examined, studied, and supported by What Works Clearinghouse in 2012.
What makes the LEAP program so important is the aspect of the children being the main teachers, not the adults, in facilitating social relationships. According to Phillip S. Strain, developer of the program, professor of educational psychology, and director of the Positive Early Learning Experiences Center at the University of Colorado at Denver, “social relationships—the lack of them—are a defining characteristic of kids with autism.” The typically developing children are serving as a model for the children with autism on how to act around peers, whether it is maintaining a conversation or identifying wants and needs. In addition, the typically developing children are exhibiting less behavioral problems over the course of the school year. The adult teachers are always present in the classroom, yet preschool teacher Jillian Burr reflects, “I feel I could walk out of the room and no one would notice, because everything is so child-driven.” [i]
The LEAP program is not only effective, but cost efficient and easy to sustain as well. Each teacher is provided training and teaching materials for the program, which is still less money than what some districts are paying for a child annually.
The key to this program is integration, and having the typically developing students act as mentors, and as friends.
[i] “Education Week” Preschool Autism Program Enlists Classmates to Teach Social Skills. 24 Jun 2013. Web. < http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/06/24/36autism.h32.html?tkn=RYVFP2bNHCc1yy%2BhqJU6dIiXFj8I7qJzgjR0&cmp=clp-edweek>