New May Center School for Autism opens in Chicopee

By Andrew Cromarty
January 6th, 2023

In September the May Institute opened its fifth May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The expansion came in response to the increased demand for these highly specialized programs across the state. The Massachusetts Chapter-766 approved school offers full-day, year-round educational services to children and adolescents from preschool to age 22.

The prevalence of autism has increased steadily over the years. In 2004 about one in 125 children were diagnosed with autism. By 2010, the rate increased to about one in 68. As of 2018, roughly one in 44 children were diagnosed with autism. The need for specialized schools like the ones the May Institute offers only continues to rise.

According to Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA, executive director at the Chicopee school, the pandemic exacerbated the situation at a time when the country was already headed toward a national teacher shortage.

“I also provide consultation work at a local hospital, and during the pandemic, seeing how many kids were hospitalized for four to six months waiting for psychiatric beds or admittance to a behavioral hospital because schools could no longer provide services for them, was a huge motivator for us,” she said.

In just the last couple of years, the May Institute received a sharp influx of referrals–many coming from Western Massachusetts.

“We’ve always had a waiting list, but at the start of the pandemic, we had a feeling it was going to increase significantly. We assumed we would see students being exposed and residential programs and public schools close. As the pandemic went on, that’s exactly what happened,” Kearney said.

The May Institute schools provide a level of education and clinical oversight that traditional public and private schools can’t offer. Their one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio allows them to dive deeply into the student’s skill sets and assessments to uncover their strength and deficits.

Their multidisciplinary teams include teachers, behavioral analysts, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and a nursing staff.

These professionals use proven methods of teaching and interventions based on contemporary Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) research to provide an individualized curriculum for each student based on their specific needs.

The needs can vary from assisting with mobility and improving reading comprehension, to developing readiness skills for adulthood.

“Our comprehensive team is able to look at an individual’s skill sets and research what curriculums are out there to make sure that we’re using the best empirically validated research and curriculum to provide support for each of our kids,” Kearney said.

As research further develops, alternative methods will continue to be discovered. The May Institute stresses the importance of incorporating new practices as the program expands.

“We don’t want to be perfect because when you’re not perfect, you continue to strive to try to be the best. We recognize when things may no longer be effective and other methods are likely to yield better results,” Kearney said. “We want to make sure that we continue to evolve within our field so that we can continue to provide the best individualized services to students and families.”

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