SKOWHEGAN — The Children’s Center of Augusta is putting finishing touches on a recently opened second location, in Skowhegan, after nearly 50 years of service in Kennebec County.

The center, in a renovated 1804 farmhouse on Bigelow Hill Road, is designed for young children with autism and developmental delays and disabilities such as pervasive developmental disorder, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

Services focus on classroom programs, “floor time” and education using the principles of the Early Start Denver Model, and are for about nine children ranging in age from 18 months to 48 months, Executive Director Jeffrey Johnson said.

The staff concentrates on speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, case management for children and parent education, he said.

“This is exciting for us in that the Skowhegan area has not had a program providing services specifically to young children with autism and other more global delays,” Johnson said. “Research shows that these services are vital to young children in developing language skills and the means to gain independence.”

In one study, he said, 40 percent of children who participated in an intensive therapy program no longer met the criteria to diagnose them with autism.

THE TWO CENTERS

The Children’s Center in Augusta, off Alden Avenue, has been providing services for children with special needs and their families since 1966. The center in Augusta serves as many as 100 children a day.

In Skowhegan, the old farmhouse at the bottom of Bigelow Hill has a large yard with a playground and apple trees, Johnson said. The 11-room house, in which some rooms still have the original doors, tin ceilings and wide floorboards, is owned by Ker Associates, a real estate trust. The center leases the building and grounds and has invested about $30,000 in renovations since it took over in late October.

Johnson and Elisa Sousa, the Skowhegan site supervisor, said program services are funded through Child Developmental Services, an agency within the state Department of Health and Human Services, and MaineCare. The Children’s Center is a nonprofit charitable organization.

“Over the course of the last few years, we finally have some reasonable research that supports specific interventions for young children with autism, particularly around speech, language, play therapy and social interaction,” Johnson said.

The problem for families in rural areas such as somerset county who have children in need of services has been access to those services, he said. Research shows that the earlier the diagnosis is made and the more aggressive the intervention is, the better the outcome, making a rural satellite center in Skowhegan so , important, Johnson said.

Early diagnosis, even by an untrained person or parent, is done by observing delays in communication skills in a child. Speech delays can be seen with comparisons to siblings or other children of the same age. A parent also might notice what Johnson calls social disengagement, in which young children don’t make eye contact or don’t like to roll around and play with other children.

GETTING HELP

The parent then goes to the family doctor, who in turn will make a referral to the Child Developmental Services at DHHS, which then makes contact with the Children’s Center for therapy, Johnson said.

The Skowhegan center has nine children enrolled in programs. Another satellite program is planned for March 1 in South Gardiner.

In Skowhegan, children come with their parents to the quiet, converted farmhouse for six to nine hours a week. Trained staff members also go into each child’s home for more therapy.