“My heart and most of my training is with Early Intervention and Early Childhood Education,” Felton Institute’s Early Intervention and Inclusion Director for Early Care and Education (ECE) programs, Dr. Plern Pratoommas explains. For nearly two decades she has brought her expertise and enthusiasm to the discipline, whilst adapting to change and growth of best practices and emerging programs. One of her most notable successes is the Felton Early Autism Program (FEAP), which serves children on the Autism spectrum in an inclusive early childhood setting.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Pratoommas has worked and lived in the United States and Thailand. She holds a master’s degree in Special Education with a specialization in Early Childhood and Autism, and a Doctorate in Infant and Early Childhood Development with an emphasis in Mental Health and Developmental Disorders. Dr. Pratoommas has a wealth of experience having worked as a teacher, early interventionist, and program supervisor/director. She began working at Felton Institute in 2014 where she now holds her current role as Early Intervention and Inclusion Director of Felton’s ECE programs and where she developed FEAP.
The Felton Early Autism Program brings together an evidence-based intervention model specifically designed for infants and toddlers on the autism spectrum, the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) coupled with the child’s natural learning environment. It was one of the first inclusive center-based programs in San Francisco that incorporated an intervention designed specifically for young children with autism.
Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder which can be diagnosed early in a child’s development, commonly before age three. Characteristics include but are not limited to difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, restricted and repetitive behavior, and challenges with social interaction. Statistics show that 1 in 68 children live with autism. The Felton Early Autism Program provides a supportive and nurturing space for children on the spectrum, under the supervision of highly trained and skilled EI and ECE professionals.
“What makes us unique,” Dr. Pratoommas emphasizes, “is that we’re inclusive. We welcome children with special needs into our ECE programs.” She continues, “you’ll see that every classroom at Felton has both children with and without special needs.” Those with special needs she explains, “are part of the classroom. They participate in all of the classroom activities alongside their same-aged peers.”
These social interactions are especially important for children on the spectrum. As Dr. Pratoommas elucidates, one misconception about children with autism is that they do not want to engage with others. However, she stresses, “maybe they just need to be shown how or we just need to know how to engage with them better.” FEAP fosters this engagement by giving young children on the spectrum rich opportunities to engage with other children and for other children to understand and accept individual differences.
Dr. Pratoommas recalls when she was working with a child with autism, “we had a young boy on the spectrum, and he didn’t have any language skills.” However, two months into the program, while she was outside training one of the early interventionists, “there was an airplane that you can hear flying up above.” She continues, “all of a sudden, this little boy, who was unable to speak yet and wasn’t really interacting at all, looked up at the plane and pointed to it. Then he looked at us, not saying anything, but it was in his eyes.” Dr. Pratoommas says enthusiastically, “he was saying, ‘look.’ And I remember that moment solidifying and really reinforcing that we were doing the right thing and that our effort was successful.”
The many exciting changes and growth of programs like FEAP, as Dr. Pratoommas states, “keeps me in the field and continues to motivate me.” Part of that experience is embracing change. “Change” she reflects, “is probably the most challenging aspect of program work. But “she continues, “as long as you accept that change is a natural part of life, that helps you form a true perspective of how things work and you can plan appropriately. I think having stayed connected to Felton over the past eight years as a certified ESDM trainer, in addition to other roles, has helped maintain the quality of the program and will continue to do so as we expand FEAP over the next few years. We are very proud that we can provide continuous training and certification to our Early Intervention staff in this evidence-based intervention.”
The Felton Early Autism Program supports and fosters inclusive learning while embracing the many changes and transformation of both the students and the program. “Each month there’s so many new initiatives”, Dr. Pratoommas elucidates. FEAP is now operating at two of Felton’s ECE sites in San Francisco, in the Mission District and in the Bay View. Additionally, beginning in this month, FEAP will be expanding with more openings to serve more of San Francisco’s children and families. “It’s all very, very exciting” Dr. Pratoommas says with a smile.
If you’d like to learn more about our Felton Early Autism Program (FEAP) you can visit our program page.
About Felton Institute: Founded in 1889, Felton Institute responds to human needs by providing cutting edge, evidence-based mental health and social services that transform lives. Felton Institute is a tax-exempt organization registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit under EIN 94-1156530.
Offering more than 50 acclaimed and honored programs that address homelessness, mental health, prenatal, adolescent, adult, and senior needs, Felton Institute provides services in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, and Monterey counties. Felton’s social services and programs utilize the latest scientific research, combining cultural sensitivity, deep respect for client and staff, and a commitment to social justice.
Felton is the oldest non-sectarian and nonprofit social services provider in the City and County of San Francisco. For over a century, Felton Institute has been at the forefront of social service innovation, pioneering new approaches to meet underserved populations’ emerging needs. At the heart of our work is the belief that individuals and families in crisis must have access to services and resources to help them build on their inherent strengths and develop self-sufficiency. www.felton.org