Savannah Slone was alarmed when her toddler Oliver stopped responding to his name and stopped making eye contact. But then everything changed when she found Kindering Center.

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At 15 months, Oliver seemed healthy. Big for his age, with blue eyes and light-brown hair, he had learned 10 words or so. He danced when he heard music, played patty cake and waved and said “bye-bye” to people.

But then those cute behaviors vanished. He stopped responding to his name and stopped making eye contact. Instead of dancing he spun in circles. He hated being held or touched. He stared at the spinning washing machine. He got upset with any sort of change or unfamiliar environment, wailing until he couldn’t breathe. He would bang his head on the wall over and over.

Now try to imagine you’re his mother, Savannah Slone, who was 19 this summer when Oliver’s problems surfaced. A single mom, Slone lives in Skykomish, population 198 in the 2010 census. She was the only senior in the community’s K-12 school when she graduated, and there are few services near Skykomish for evaluating such behavior in a toddler.

“It was sad. It was alarming. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was,” Slone said. “It’s not what you picture when you have a baby.”

Oliver’s pediatrician said he should see a specialist. Some 30 calls later, to facilities from Olympia to Wenatchee, Slone felt lost. Some weren’t calling back, or if they did, they said couldn’t help.

“But then everything changed,” she said. She found the Kindering Center in Bellevue, which specializes in treating children from birth to 3 years old with special needs.

Kindering Center

Kindering provides education and therapies to children from birth to 3 years old with developmental delays or disabilities.

Oliver met with a specialist and received speech and occupational therapy. Soon he was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe autism spectrum disorder. Slone finally had answers.

Oliver began an intensive program for autistic children. He and his mom now spend eight hours a week commuting to Kindering. “But it’s worth every minute,” Slone said.

Kindering is one of the nonprofit agencies that benefits from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Founded by five Bellevue-area mothers of children with disabilities, Kindering has been serving families like the Slones for five decades from its Crossroads neighborhood location.

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Kindering opened a satellite facility in Bothell in 2014, expanding its staff to 150 in all. It now reaches almost 4,000 children and families a year and its diverse clientele speak 86 languages.

Recognizing the needs of the entire family, Kindering also offers support and education for parents, including home visits and teletherapy. “Much of our work is coaching the family to carry on the therapy through play or in the normal routines at home,” said Mimi Siegel, Kindering’s executive director.

Siegel says 75 percent of early-intervention graduates narrow their development gaps and 46 percent do not require special education services after Kindering. She estimates that the program saves Eastside schools about $11 million a year in special services the children do not need after receiving Kindering services.

Child, family grow stronger

Your dollars at work

Samples of what Kindering Center can do with your donation:

$25: Books for early literacy education.

$50: High-contrast colorful toys for visually impaired children.

$100: An hour of physical therapy.

For information:

https://kindering.org

On a recent day, Slone and Oliver — who had his second birthday on Dec. 23 — drove through a steady downpour to Bellevue. She allots two hours each way for traffic and the back routes she tends to use.

At Kindering, Oliver settled into a class with four other children, each with their own instructor. For the next two hours Slone watched, along with other mothers, from behind mirrored glass.

She could see Oliver play with building blocks, hula hoops and other toys, while his instructor worked to get his attention, make eye contact and prepare him for a transition to the next task. It looks simple, but involves considerable structure. Play areas have shelves high on the walls, stocked with toys, so a child will have to look up for something he or she wants, creating one more opportunity to work on eye contact.

Oliver looked happy except when a little girl took one of his toys. “There was a little bit of tension but it was good because it was one of the few times he noticed one of the other kids,” Slone said.

Children at Oliver’s age are not expected to play with one another, explained C.J. Stout, a special educator who leads Oliver’s class. But the Kindering program provides a chance for toddlers like Oliver to experience “parallel play” around peers and become more comfortable with other children.

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As Oliver matures and class routines become more familiar, Stout hopes he will gain increasing independence “intended to give kids school-readiness skills.”

All of which helps Slone to focus on her own future for Oliver’s sake.

She and Oliver live with her mother, who works for the local school district. When her mother gets home, Slone heads off to two part-time jobs cleaning office buildings.

Slone completed an associates’ degree online in August through Everett Community College. In January she plans to enroll in an online bachelor’s degree program at Central Washington University. Her goal is to get a master’s degree in library science at the University of Washington.

She feels “really lucky” she doesn’t have to pay out of pocket for Oliver’s therapy. Insurance, the school district and Kindering’s uncompensated-care fund now cover the expense.

Kindering gets its funds from four sources, Siegel said: school districts; private donations and the United Way; insurance, Medicaid and family fees; and a combination of federal, state and city money. No families are turned away, she said, and most pay minimal fees.

“Hoping for the best”

Slone sees progress in Oliver already. His eye contact is stronger than ever, she said. He knows 10 to 15 words. He’s dancing again.

“I’m feeling really hopeful,” Slone said, “because it’s only been a few months at Kindering. If he keeps improving, I see only good.”

But struggles remain.

Slone has started a blog where she details daily challenges of caring for Oliver.

She wrote recently of Oliver’s first visit to the dentist, something she said she had been dreading and putting off until she discovered the Center for Pediatric Dentistry in Seattle offers an autism clinic on Mondays.

“Boy, did it go as I had hoped it wouldn’t,” she wrote.

In the unfamiliar environment, Oliver started screaming and running in search of an exit before he threw himself on the floor. Slone tried to show him videos of himself on her phone, tried singing his favorite songs, and tried to make a game of running back and forth in the waiting areas.

But once he hits sensory overload it’s hard to pull him out. When the dentist was ready, Slone held Oliver and laid his head down on the dentist’s knee.

Because brushing Oliver’s teeth is such a battle at home, Slone was nervous about cavities and what would come after.

But in one of those bright spots she keeps looking for, the dentist found no cavities. And Slone said she found it refreshing not to get dirty looks from other parents and staff members while her child was having a meltdown.

“I’m hoping for the best,” Slone said. “That he can learn his tools and be able to calm himself down and operate something like normally. To be able to have a childhood would be a great thing.”