Making a difference: Katie Laurino



Katie Laurino with some of her students.

During her years as a Girl Scout, Katie Laurino befriended a girl who was deaf. Even as a child, she felt that no matter our differences, all people should be treated with respect and kindness.

Fast forward a few decades and the 30-year-old founder of The Creative Arts Project (CAP) still feels the same way. Everyone deserves decency and acceptance, especially the children with special needs who are enrolled in her music, dance and movement program in Point Pleasant.

“The parents are very appreciative,” said Katie, who launched CAP in September 2011. “With schedules that typically center around doctor visits and therapy appointments, the parents love that the Creative Arts Project offers their kids a place to just be themselves. “CAP offers children facing different life challenges the same quality instruction that typical children access on a daily basis.”

Katie, who has a B.F.A. in dance from East Carolina University, is enrolled in Georgian Court’s accelerated teacher certification program for K-5 and Special Education.

On the university level, the continued emphasis on autism issues can be found in courses across varied disciplines. Researcher and autism expert Lisa Dille, Ed.D., an assistant professor in the school of education, works with undergraduate and graduate students to discern best practices for teaching youngsters on the autism spectrum while addressing the unique needs of their families. She also advocates for federal, state and private funding to support autism research.

The public’s growing awareness is reflected in GCU’s growing applied behavior analysis graduate program. Faculty members Stephen M. Levine, Ph.D., director of the ABA program, and David Wilson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, point to a growing need for board-certified professionals in behavior analysis. There is high demand for such experts who can work or consult in schools, early intervention programs, day programs, residential settings and home-based programs.

Katie, meanwhile, is looking to expand The Creative Arts Project and transition into teaching special education. For now, her twin passions come together in the dance studio where kids with autism and other developmental challenges can dive into the arts while building body awareness, self-confidence and socialization skills.

It’s where they play with homemade instruments, learn to stretch, and have fun expressing themselves as they dance‚ just like any other child.

The classes are held at a local dance studio (which suffered flooding after Hurricane Sandy) where parents and students alike look forward to having fun. Kimberlee Rutan McCafferty, the blogger behind, is a therapist and mother to two boys on the autism spectrum. In one post, she noted the positive impact it has on children—especially her son, Zach.

“If you could see his face after every lesson, you’d know there’s at least one child living out Miss Katie’s dream,” she wrote. Word-of-mouth support from parents like Ms. McCafferty continue to fuel the program’s growth.

Katie, who believes movement and music have the power to evoke a range of emotions and feelings in children, enjoys the 45-minute classes just as much as her students.

“The kids have nicknamed the program ‘Dance Party!’ They come running into the studio, greeting me and my volunteers with hugs and high-fives,” said Katie. “Because they don’t all attend the same school, they have been able to build new friendships, which is absolutely priceless. One of the students even tells his mom on Fridays, “No school Mommy, go see Miss Katie”. For others who may not be able to verbally express themselves, it is the excitement in their eyes and great big smiles, which says it all. They simply can’t wait for Dance Party, and neither can I!”