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Danvers learning center will focus on children on autism spectrum

Young children with autism have a new opportunity to play and learn in a place specially created for them.

Northeast Arc is converting its standard child-care facility in Danvers to a learning center dedicated to boys and girls on the autism spectrum.

Tentatively set to open mid-July, the center will use Applied Behavior Analysis, a treatment approach commonly used for people with autism that involves observing an individual’s behavior and seeking to adjust it, including through changes to his or her environment. Children will receive the therapy in the classroom and in one-on-one sessions.

Northeast Arc, a Danvers-based nonprofit that provides varied services for people with developmental disabilities and autism, began using the therapy in a limited way for children with autism at its child-care center last year, with the intent of fully converting to the new program this fall. But the COVID-19 pandemic moved up that timetable.

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“COVID-19 has accelerated our plans as we have seen parents of children on the spectrum struggle with teaching their children at home and have asked us to help find a solution,” Jo Ann Simons, Northeast Arc’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Like the existing center, closed since March 17 due to the pandemic, the new Learning Center at Northeast Arc will serve children up to 5 years old, with an after-school session for those 5 to 7. But it will be limited to children with autism, their siblings, and the children of Northeast Arc staff, according to Jill McEntee, the center’s clinical program director.

McEntee said Northeast Arc is switching to the autism-focused format because the existing program “really didn’t meet the mission of Arc, which is to serve individuals with autism and developmental disabilities,” adding that the change will allow the center to serve more children on the spectrum and provide them the specialized care they need.

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Child-care centers were allowed to reopen starting June 15 provided they have a state-approved plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Northeast Arc’s plan, now under development, will involve measures ranging from keeping children in the same groups all day to limiting the number of staff members with whom each interacts.

Northeast Arc is licensed to serve 55 children at the center, but will start with 26 to 30 to accommodate social distancing, reaching full complement later when it opens added space now being outfitted.

Danvers resident Nicole Keating,whose son with autism, Hunter, 4, attended Northeast Arc’s regular child-care program, said she looks forward to sending him to the new Learning Center, noting the progress he made in the existing program through Applied Behavior Analysis.

“He participates more, he is building friendships, he is able to play better with kids. His vocabulary has just exploded — he doesn’t stop talking now,” she said.

McEntee said Applied Behavior Analysis focuses on “understanding how variables in our environment affect our behavior.” With that understanding, “we can change those variables to effect a change in behavior.”

For example, she said if a child is having difficulty sitting at a table and participating in the class activity, staff will look for such changes as giving the child more break time to motivate the child to participate.

Peabody resident Margaret Kinsella said she is also impressed by the effect the therapy has had on her son with autism, Liam, 5, who enrolled at the child-care center last fall and will attend the new program until he enters kindergarten this fall.

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“He can write his name. He can count to 100. He’s started to make friends. He’s doing really well,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.