Nicholas Center Creates Online Environment For Individuals With Autism


Fearing an abrupt disruption to their daily life could have irreparable harm on their service recipients who heavily rely on structure and predictability, the Nicholas Center took immediate action.

“After we announced we would be closed for an indefinite period of time, our staff went home that night. They were tasked with developing lessons that could be delivered remotely within 48 hours,” executive director and co-founder Nicole Sugrue said. “This has been disorienting and stressful for all of us, but even more so for those who can’t quite fully grasp what is happening or cannot express how these changes are impacting them internally.”

Since March 18, Nicholas Center’s small team of 35 coordinators and direct support staff went to work to ensure their 90 participants with Autism would have access to a continuum of service. These services would keep them connected to familiar faces and routine.
“The participants in our program thrive when they have structure and know what to expect in their day-to-day lives. When those routines were suddenly disrupted for all of our individuals and families, we knew we didn’t have time to think about what this meant for the future of our program. We immediately asked ourselves what remote services should look like in order to keep those we serve engaged in meaningful programming.” Said Dave Thompson, who serves as Director of Workforce Development for the nonprofit.

The remote environment offers daily sessions between 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., offering up to four different choices per hour. Young adults with autism have immediate access to live sessions so they can continue to build upon work abilities, improve their communication and social skills and explore new learning opportunities. In addition to maintaining their previously acquired vocational knowledge, Nicholas Center staff members have offer guided virtual field trips, exploration of new languages, exercise regimes and more. They’ve included new courses that tech personal health skills such as maintaining social distance, appropriate hand washing and mask care. They also host hours of facilitated online social events.

More than 60 of their 90 clients spend hours each day within well-planned remote lessons designed by their specially trained coordinators and support staff. All sessions are hosted using password protected Zoom rooms, with schedule changes each day to promote variety and maintain enthusiasm. Most classes host up to 8 participants per session and social groups often have as many as 25 participants in attendance.

For those who do not prefer group learning, Nicholas Center offers 1 to 1 private sessions. This level of support caters to those who learn best with individualized instruction with minimal distraction. Nicholas Center staff members are also there for parents and caregivers who may be struggling with keeping their special needs child engaged during this challenging time. Sometimes, they simply need emotional support and someone to talk to.

Nicholas Center offers other types of direct services, such as in home care for those in crisis. Staff members have done small tasks, such as setting up a home computer. In addition, staff members have done larger tasks, such as running errands for families who find it difficult to travel out with their son or daughter with autism.

Throughout this experience, there have been many new talents revealed and discovered, in both Nicholas Center staff and in those they serve. Some parents thought their child would never respond favorably to online services, but have been delightfully surprised.

“As you know, it can be especially difficult for those participants who are accustomed to having a set schedule. This has been challenging for Bryan. We do try to have scheduled activities each day, but the Nicholas Center staff video chats have been wonderful. It provides his day with additional structure, and he is super happy to stay connected with his work friends and staff. It’s amazing to see how Nicholas Center continues to think creatively to keep things going in whatever way possible,” Liz Salerno, a Nicholas Center parent said.

Nicholas Center will continue using its remote program to deliver telehealth services for an indefinite period of time. Although there is much uncertainty as to how or when it will begin to reopen, one thing is for sure, Nicholas Center will undoubtedly handle it with great care and thought-keeping the needs of their beneficiaries first.

To help support Nicholas Center’s current and future endeavors, make a tax deductible donation by calling 516-767-7177 or visiting

—Submitted by the Nicholas Center

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