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Shafer Center Expands to Offer More Learning Opportunities for Kids with Autism

The Shafer Center in Reisterstown was founded in 2006 by a mom who wanted more opportunities for her child.

Colin participating in one-on-one applied behavior analysis. Credit: The Shafer Center
Colin participating in one-on-one applied behavior analysis. Credit: The Shafer Center
Helen Shafer said she founded The Shafer Center for Early Intervention school for children with autism not because she wanted to "fix" her son, but rather because she wanted him to have access to opportunities just like other children.

"When you get the diagnosis, your physician doesn't give you an action plan," Shafer said, referring to when her 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. "So as the parent you become the case manager." 

Shafer said she explored all options available to her son, Hayden, and was disappointed to find that there wasn't much out there for preschool aged children.

"It became clear to me that it was very unfair," Shafer said. "As soon as schools heard his diagnosis, the label, they planned out his whole life for him that included decades of special ed and all these services. I thought that was so fundamentally unfair, I was like, 'he's 2 -- he hasn't done anything yet, nothing's happened yet and you're telling me this is how it's going to be for the rest of his life?'."

It was when she was looking at all the combinations of programs and services at private schools and public schools that Shafer said she decided to start her own program. She said her husband thought she was crazy. She said she kind of agreed with him.

"It's not wanting to fix him, I never wanted to fix him," Shafer said. "For me it was about there not being an opportunity for him to even have. That, to me, was the biggest injustice." 

So in addition to running her own medical device company and parenting two children, Helen Shafer embarked on a two-year pilot program with just under a dozen children in some space at a local church. 

Shafer said she was looking for a preschool program where children could learn to be social but where there were also one-on-one services. She said it was important to her that there was both a special educator and a speech language therapist in the classroom. 

"I don't have an education background but as a mom, as a parent, I definitely had a vision for what I wanted to see [Hayden] have," Shafer said.

After two years of the pilot program, Shafer said they were seeing results in the children and they had begun to outgrow the church space. They moved into a facility on Business Center Drive in Reisterstown five years ago and have continued to expand programs. 

Shafer said what makes the programs at her Center unique is that children are placed by ability instead of by age, and each classroom has a special education teacher, a speech language pathologist and an applied behavior analyst working together.

"We're meshing all these disciplines together for the betterment of the children," Shafer said. "It's powerful to have all those disciplines integrated, seamless."

The Shafer Center now employs 60 people and serves about 50 kids, Shafer said. In addition to serving children at the school, they also have staff that goes into the school system to provide contracted services as well as into homes to provide services. 

Shafer said the program is constantly growing based on the needs of the children. She said they now offer tutoring programs for children who are attending public or private schools. They also offer a Bridge Program that helps teach life skills like how to go grocery shopping. 

"Our programs help kids interact more in their communities," Shafer said. "It's great for the kids and I also think it's great for the community."

The Shafer Center will be expanding yet again right before the New Year. The Center will relocate to a facility on Cronridge Drive in Owings Mills in late December.  

"I get excited when I think about the Center and how it has grown," Shafer said. "I get excited about how we can do more, do better, create new things." 

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