LifeSpeed Early Learning Center doesn’t look like the kind of place where kids on the autism spectrum would go for formal therapy. It looks more like a playground.
That’s by design, said Tony Russo, owner of the LifeSpeed Early Learning Center.
Much of the space inside the Madison Street storefront looks like any other indoor playground, complete with a trampoline, construction blocks, a swing, a wooden slide and plenty of stuffed animals. There are two small rooms off to the side, but there are no locks. Kids can go there for therapy, but they can also leave whenever they want.
“When someone is happy, when they’re relaxed, when they’re engaged, they’re able to absorb information, I think, more robustly than if they’re doing it in the place of discomfort, a place of fear,” he said. “We tried to really create a space where kids could be kids.”
The Early Learning Center first opened in Oak Park in March 2020 but moved to a larger Madison Street space in Forest Park that offered significantly more room to work with. It allowed them to create a separate staff lounge and dining area for kids, to expand the play area and to create transitional rooms at both entrances to make it easier for kids coming in to adjust to the new surroundings. It also had the advantage of being closer to Eisenhower Expressway and not too far from the original Oak Park location. The Learning Center is open to the kids between ages three and 13.
Russo said the goal is to have kids do therapy when they’re comfortable.
“Kids choose to go to the rooms when they’re ready,” he said. “You feel good, you know you can access it whenever you want. At any moment, you just tell us and show us you want to do something else. The doors don’t lock. We keep them open on purpose.”
With the therapy, the goal is to teach kids to advocate for themselves and respond to stress constructively. For example, Russo said, if a child asks for candy and they didn’t get the type of candy they specifically wanted, the therapist teaches the child to ask for candy again, as opposed to throwing the “wrong” candy at the wall.
Because of the nature of autism spectrum disorder, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how much noise and other sensory input is too much, and what kind of behaviors the kids are comfortable with. Russo said that they approach each child on a case-by-case basis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” The exact symptoms, or the extent to which those symptoms manifest, can vary a great deal depending on the person, but can include struggles to pick up social cues, fixation on narrow interests, preference toward routines and struggles with processing sensory input. The level of support they need varies a great deal as well, ranging anywhere from little to no support to regular care.
“We don’t presume that any one child likes things a certain way,” he said. “We offer everything and see what they gravitate towards.”
If a child needs a quiet, dark room to destress, the center provides it. If the child likes “loud music, pressing buttons and banging on things,” they can do that.
LifeSpeed Early Learning Center is part of LifeSpeed Behavioral Support Services, founded by Russo in 2013 to provide services for adolescents and young adults with a variety of developmental and cognitive disorders, including autism spectrum disorder. Russo said that he wanted to address an issue that affects many young people with disabilities – when they age out of high school-based programs, they find themselves without any support whatsoever.
He decided to branch out into therapy for young children because the interactions with the youth made him realize that they could’ve benefitted from therapy and support earlier in their lives.
“What we saw was that our adults lacked the foundational skills that are typically taught when they’re very young, so this center is our venture into the space of early learning, so we can reverse-engineer,” Russo said.