In a colorful classroom framed through a two-way observation mirror, small clusters of cozily clad 3-year-olds enjoy snack time with their therapists, most of them content in their own activities, their own toys and, in some cases, their own digital “talker” tablets displaying an ever-increasing vocabulary of nouns, verbs and simple phrases. These are the building blocks of communication for nonverbal children diagnosed, as these children have been, with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. To a layperson, nothing appears amiss or disordered at all, not at first, until Deanna Whittle, CEO of Baton Rouge’s Emerge Center, which houses the classroom, makes a pointed observation.
“As you can see, none of the children are really interacting with one another, which is very common here,” Whittle says. “Some of them may have just learned to sit, or eat a sandwich after dealing with food aversion. Our goal is to get them to respond to and recognize social cues through positive reinforcement, using a lot of music therapy or a lot of art—eventually, they’ll get there.”
April marks Autism Awareness Month, a time of the year dedicated to one of the most misunderstood and multifaceted developmental disabilities, affecting as many as 1 in 54 children today, according to the CDC. In spite of ASD’s prevalence, many caregivers throughout the South struggle to find the resources in therapy and early education that can be so crucial to a child’s eventual integration into neurotypical society. The Emerge Center—which a few years ago created a kindergarten and has since expanded to become the first tuition-free school in Louisiana for children with ASD up to the second grade—has long been on the forefront of ensuring that those resources remain free, diverse, up to date, and specialized to each child.
“We originally started out near LSU in 1960 as the Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation,” says Shelton Jones, executive director of The Emerge Foundation, which arose in 2018 as the center’s fundraising operation. “Over time, we evolved with the community’s needs, from offering hearing assessments in our special diagnostic rooms to assessing children for signs of autism.”
In 2014, a swell of community support led to the Emerge Center’s newer, much larger location on Innovation Park Drive, a high-ceilinged, many-windowed facility bedecked with its signature butterfly sculptures guiding visitors through offices, classrooms, specialized therapy rooms, parental visiting rooms, a cafeteria and more. With such a huge space and ample staff members—each child spotted in classrooms or hallways is almost always attended by his or her own assigned therapist or technician—The Emerge Center prides itself on its ability to offer all-encompassing services in speech-language therapy, occupational therapy and Applied Behavioral Analysis techniques (The Emerge Center is also the only Southern organization included in the ongoing SPARK study, the largest genetic study of autism in history), taking the burden off parents who would otherwise need to drop their child off at different locations each week.
“We do one-on-one therapy here, as well as group therapy, and we’re also one of the only organizations in our niche that accepts Medicaid. Our school is tuition-free,” says Whittle. “We just want to make sure that every child who needs our help has a fair chance at receiving it, no matter their circumstances.”
In the carpool line, one child has decided that he no longer wants to go by his old name. In the sensory therapy room, another child swings with the help of his therapist, speaking more words than ever before. Special cloths hang over fluorescent lights to avoid overstimulation, dance breaks sound off from the elementary school, and in what may seem at first like an ecosystem all its own, a sense of normalcy thrives; these are classrooms anyone would recognize, smiles anyone would reciprocate.
“It’s so important that this is a nonprofit,” says Lindsay Smith, who moved with her husband from Mississippi so that their 3-year-old son Wash could attend classes and therapy at The Emerge Center. “When I drop Wash off in the morning, he gets out with such a smile on his face—we had to teach him to start kissing his mama goodbye! The spirit of caregiving just radiates through everything.”
This month, The Emerge Center kicks off its newest fundraiser, Project Puzzle, a community-wide virtual auction to raise $40,000 for the organization’s Scholarship Fund. Each $20 donation comes with the chance to win several prizes as well as a virtual puzzle piece. On the day of the prize drawings, The Emerge Center will reveal a puzzle-piece-themed art installation—puzzle pieces being a well-known symbol of autism—made in collaboration with Emerge students and local artist Ellen Ogden.
“Without philanthropy, we really couldn’t do all we do,” says Whittle. “The success of The Emerge Center is such a testament to community support, and we’re looking forward to so many cool changes in the future.”
Purchase virtual puzzle pieces for The Emerge Center’s Project Puzzle fundraiser at emergela.org/puzzle.