NORWAY – The first time 3-year-old Allison looked up at her mother and said “no,” Jean Brooking was thrilled.

“To us, it was wonderful,” said the mother of three from Fryeburg.

Allison was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate, to reason and to interact with others. It is conservatively estimated that nearly 1.5 million people in the United States have some form of autism.

Brooking first suspected her daughter might have autistic tendencies shortly after she turned 2, when she realized that Allison’s language and other skills were not developing as they should.

As with many diagnoses, it was not an immediate one. But when a doctor finally confirmed what she suspected, it was the start; finding a program that would meet her daughter’s needs was the next challenge.

“It is very difficult. There are not very many programs, especially in the Oxford County area,” said Darlene Lepoff, information specialist with the Autism Society of Maine.

Brooking said her search led her to the Norway OT To Play program in January. “I was very happy,” she said of the program that is located on Grove Street and celebrates its first anniversary this month.

For Allison, the results have been obvious. “Just globally,” said Brooking when asked what improvements she has seen in her daughter since she began the program. Her eye contact has improved, she is saying words at prompting even though she was nonverbal when she entered the program. She has developed peer relationships, and she is showing “typical” 3-year-old behavior, such as saying “no.”

OT To Play, one of three programs at the pediatric development center, has one of the few, full-day autism programs for children, ages 2 to 5, in the state. While there are some very good programs such as the May Center in Brunswick, the Margaret Murphy Center for Children in Lewiston, which has programs for children from kindergarten through grade 12, several in the Bangor area and in southern Maine, the programs vary significantly in their offerings.

“There are not many services in the Oxford County area. There are some tucked away but they’re really lacking in most of the state,” said Lepoff of preschool programs.

What makes the OT To Play program unusual and significant is not only the fact that it offers a full-day program to autistic preschool children, but what that program entails.

Teacher Amanda Diffin said each child who attends the program is very different. One child might have perfect verbal skills but lack social and motor skills. Each child has an individual program tailored for their needs, but group interaction, including games with children in the regular day care center, is primary on the list of activities each day.

“Socialization and peer interaction is a big piece. That’s what sets our program aside,” said Diffin, who is trained in special education. Group games and singing that build on the children’s verbal skills become an exciting challenge for the children while art work at a quiet table may help others with skills they lack.

Because autism is diagnosed over such as wide spectrum, each child presents different challenges, said Diffin. “Meltdowns” are a common occurrence, but what causes these emotional outbursts can be something as simple as a shirt tag rubbing the wrong way against a child’s neck.

“I like to call ourselves investigators,” said Diffin. “It’s very complex,” she said of the mystery behind autism and how it affects each child differently.

Diffin said one of the most important things parents can do is to get an early diagnosis and early intervention.

Brooking, who also faces a possible autistic challenge with one of her younger twin sons, said she doesn’t know what the future holds once her daughter leaves preschool. “I’m nervous the funding won’t be there,” she said of the need for more programs to adequately address the needs of autistic children.

For the moment, she says, she is happy with the milestones her daughter makes each day.

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