West Philadelphia: Center For Autism Working Toward “Outcomes for Life”

Four boys were hard at play, combining baking soda and vinegar.

They were creating miniature volcanoes, in awe as they erupted. It’s an amusing and common pastime for any 4-year-old, but for these young boys it was more than just a game. It was part of the pre-K program at The Center For Autism in West Philadelphia.

As they interacted among their peers and therapists, they were developing skill sets that will soon help them cope in the Philadelphia school system.  

“We look at outcomes for life and growth for life,” said director of clinical services Coleen Vanderbeek. “We want to provide individuals who come here with a strong foundation so that development can continue to occur. We believe that all development and all growth occur within the context of a relationship.”

The Center for Autism is a relationship-based treatment facility. It serves young individuals diagnosed with autism, a complex developmental disability.

Autism affects a person’s ability to effectively communicate and interact with others, which is why the center makes relationship building a priority. Treatment teams work together, scheduling activities to help develop things like gross and fine motor skills while also encouraging social engagement.  

We have circle time. That might elicit children to engage with one another and to engage with the therapists,” said assistant director of the pre-K program Erin Oakes. “We’re looking for them to show us eye contact, smile, laugh, be engaged in the activity and maybe activate the senses.”

Autism affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. The activities implemented can be tweaked depending upon the children’s goals.

Treatment teams analyze each child and decide on three goals they’ll work toward, one in each core deficit of autism.

Staff members work together to design programming that would benefit individuals as well as the groups they are assigned. A three-to-one therapist to child ratio helps maintain a successful work environment.

“[My son’s] room has two other children. It’s just him, two others and a therapist,” said Dana Pierdiovanni, the mother of a young boy participating in the First Friends Program. “It’s really an ideal environment to build on social skills in a small setting.”

Pierdiovanni explained the First Friends Program offers children up to age 6 the skills necessary to form relationships with peers.

These interactions are meant to ease the transition to a more educational setting like kindergarten. Therapists provide the clients with the tools they can carry with them through grade school and beyond.

“One of the things that we do to help their teacher understand them is we develop a profile book, and it’s kind of an All About Me book. [These books] describe what the child might like, what they might not like, what their preferences are and what systems they use to communicate,” explained Oakes.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is another tool that The Center For Autism will pass on to grade school teachers.

PECS books and apps are used by children who may not have the verbal skills to convey their feelings, wants or needs. The center teaches those children without verbal skill how to use PECS, which they then can use in school and their community.

Although many of the programs are geared toward children, adolescents and young adults may also use the center as a place to learn and grow. The Social Competency and Saturday Program offer an outlet of employment training and help ease a client’s transition to adulthood.

Pre-vocational and independent life skills are the main focus of this treatment plan. Performing household chores, traveling in the community, preparing meals and shopping are some of the many basic skill levels developed in these programs.


The Center for Autism offers the high-quality services with minimum expense requirements, as it is a Children’s Behavioral Health (CBH) provider. Therefore, Medicaid covers all the services and treatment plans offered through the center since all clients treated have been diagnosed with autism.

This factor alone is has made a huge impact in the lives of the underprivileged clients who are treated at the center. About 70 percent of the clients fall into that category, Vanderbeek said.

“Our family consultants do a lot of work with our families and helping them to access community supports and other linkages with other programs that are based in Philadelphia,” she said.

For 60 years, this non-profit organization has been dedicated to improving the lives of individuals from diverse backgrounds and all spectrums of autism.  As a parent of a client and a part-time employee of the organization, Peirdiovanni has full confidence in the staff and the programs implemented at The Center for Autism.

“I always knew that this was the best place for [my son], so knowing that and knowing the kind of people he’d be working with really helped,” said Pierdiovanni.

– Text, images and video by Jane Babian and Caralyn Dienstman.

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