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Regional autism program expands services in Cosmos, Minn.

Mandy Adamini shows some of the balls that are used to help autistic elementary students with their large muscle skills at the Cosmos Learning Center. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

An autism program operating in Cosmos that had primarily focused on teaching older students up to age 21 has now been expanded to include kindergarten and elementary-aged students.

The expanded program is meeting a need in rural Minnesota where long distance can separate education opportunities from the people who need it.

If the recent increase in student enrollment is an indication of past success, the program will likely continue to grow, according to Tish Rops, administrator for alternative programs with the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative. The cooperative runs the Foundations program in the Cosmos Learning Center, located in a wing of the elementary school in Cosmos.

"The numbers speak to the satisfaction," Rops said.

When the program began four years ago, it had five students -- mostly teenagers. The enrollment is now at 24, including seven students in the new elementary program.

Autism continues to be diagnosed at an increasing rate and there's an increasing need for appropriate education for children with this developmental disorder, including those who may have limited verbal skills, said Lori Rettmann, program lead at Foundations.

When the program began, it was located in Glencoe. This is the third year the cooperative has leased space in Cosmos from the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District.

The relationship has been positive for both entities.

ACGC needs the extra revenue to keep the underused school in Cosmos open, and the Cosmos community provides a more central location for school districts in the 18-county area the cooperative serves, Rops said.

Even with the new location, some students travel as far as 80 miles to Cosmos from their home school districts, although most live 15 to 40 miles away.

Until this year, the program had focused on teaching students skills that could be transferred to a job and independent living situations after they graduated from the education system at 21.

But as the numbers of students grew, so did requests for classroom education for younger children who have different needs, Rops said.

Last year a few younger students with autism, including a 10-year-old, were taught alongside older students in classrooms that accommodated the vocational types of skills the students were learning. A washing machine is in one classroom to teach students how to do laundry and office-style cubicles are in another classroom to simulate a potential work environment.

In order to better serve younger students, the decision was made to develop a separate elementary program this fall in classrooms down the hall from the high school program.

The younger children needed a different kind of education than the older students, said Mandy Adamini, who was hired this year to teach the elementary students in a colorful room with puzzles on tables and pictures on the walls.

Instead of learning skills that could eventually be used to perform a job, such as sorting and assembling nuts and bolts, the young children learn numbers and colors and how to read "survival" words, like "exit," "stop" and "don't walk."

Classroom activities also promote social skills, and large and small muscle development is honed in the sensory room that is filled with large balls, sand tables and areas for crafts.

"We educate to the way the students learn best," said Rettmann, adding that repetition is combined with creative techniques that motivate students.

"There's not one way to teach all the different students we have," said Bailey Rettmann, a special education teacher at the Cosmos Learning Center.

Small successes, such as a student with limited verbal skills being able to say the teacher's name, are celebrated, Adamini said.

At the same time, the teachers learn as much from the students as the students learn from the teachers, said Bailey Rettmann, who said he's learned "the simple joys of life" from students. "I wish I had their zest for life," he said.

With 18 full-time staff members plus speech, occupational and physical therapists who are at the school on a part-time basis, the Cosmos Learning Center has a nearly one-to-one ratio of students to staff.

"I feel very fortunate to be part of this program," said Lori Rettmann.

But because the elementary program is so new, the cooperative welcomes donations of additional supplies for crafts and activities, Rops said. Equipment for gross motor skills, like a treadmill, and new technology tools, like iPads that have been an asset for students in speech development, are also being sought.

Besides the Foundations program for students with autism, the Cosmos Learning Center also hosts the Bridges program for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750