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'Stepping Stones' helps Walker students with autism spectrum disorders

Social pragmatics program set to begin third year
Stepping Stones

Ever since it was created fifty years ago, Walker has been a community of continuous learning, with programs that have evolved in response to a wide range of community needs and emerging therapeutic priorities. In the past decade, more and more Walker students have arrived with a complex set of challenges that places them on the autism spectrum.

In 2010, to better serve this growing group of students, Walker created Stepping Stones, a program designed to improve the social cognitive functioning of children who have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or have issues that cause behaviors that complicate their academic and social development.

Developed by a team of special education teachers, social workers, occupational therapists and speech pathologists, and led by Walker clinician Eric Pegnam, LICSW, the program has been successful at tailoring a support plan for children whose learning styles are often marked by social awkwardness, rigidity and poor sensory integration.

“Stepping Stones works with kids who benefit greatly from the emphasis we place upon social pragmatics, the interpersonal contact and social cues that most people don’t formally learn,” says Pegnam. He explains that many kids on the spectrum need to be taught things that few of us can remember ‘learning:’ how to make eye contact while speaking to someone, how to tell of someone is sad or frightened, how to pay attention to someone who is offering instructions. “Without these basic skills, it can be really difficult to function in the classroom and the community.”

To create this program, Pegnam has assembled a staff of more than a dozen professionals who are implementing aspects of Social Thinking, a framework developed by Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLP. This approach has introduced new strategies at Walker, which has traditionally used a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy framework, but Pegnam sees value in both approaches. “Walker has always been a place that encourages innovation and ‘finding better ways’ to teach struggling children. Social Thinking is another tool in our therapeutic toolkit.”

And it has become clear that the program fills a niche at Walker that could potentially grow much larger. With many more children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder now than in previous years, Stepping Stones offers a unique program for children with particularly complex challenges. The program’s integration within the Walker array of services offers families a broader range of support than traditional individual therapy.

One parent of a Stepping Stones student remarked that “working with several different Walker therapists, with diverse styles and guidance, allowed our son to benefit much more from therapy. This is especially important for children like our son who have multiple issues that are difficult to treat one at a time.” 

The Stepping Stones team is proud of the success that the program has had. Clinician Liane Franklin, LCSW, describes one grateful family that benefited from the program: “One student couldn’t sit at the dinner table because she was too distracted by the sound of other people chewing. She would become very upset, and so our team worked with her to create strategies for dealing with this. We received an e-mail from her mother after Thanksgiving, and for the first time she was able to sit and enjoy a holiday meal with her family. When she needed to, she politely asked to get up and take a short break, and then she returned to the table. This was a huge change for her.”

Another parent offers a succinct endorsement of the program: “Stepping Stones made my son the young man he is today. I am proud of him and I am grateful to Walker.”