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Parents partner with local business to bring motor skills and sensory lab to school

By Andrea Papagianis

The motor activity lab at Palisades Elementary School is designed to help students with sensory disorders. Photo by Andrea Papagianis
The motor activity lab at Palisades Elementary School is designed to assist students with sensory disorders. Photo by Andrea Papagianis

He did not respond to his name. Or bring his parents toys to play with. Or wave “Hi” and “Bye” to people at the grocery store. At 18-months old, Joshua’s parents noticed their son’s social interactions did not mimic those of other children his age.

But the little guy would study items intensely, and would fiddle with toys for hours, his mother, Veronica Hoggatt, recalls. Josh would sit in the front yard and examine the dirt, letting the grains fall through his little fingers. But when his parents called his name, “Joshua, Joshua, Joshua,” there was no reaction.

“We knew he could hear,” she said, as Josh would play in one room and run into the next when the theme song played from a show he responded positively to.

At a year and a half old, a neurologist confirmed that Joshua displayed certain indicators—repetitive behaviors, limited eye contact and little communication or social interaction—placing him on the autism spectrum.

According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children in the United States is identified with having an autism spectrum disorder.

Autism is a developmental disorder—caused, at least in part, by genetic factors—that affects the brain’s growth of social and communication abilities.

It knows no race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

But autism spectrum disorders are more prevalent amongst boys than girls, as one in 54 boys is believed to be on the autism spectrum, according to the CDC.

“Being out in the community is challenging for people with autism, because they have a lot of repetitive behaviors and sometimes it looks a little odd,” Hoggatt said.

These tendencies may have been thought little of 40 years ago, but under today’s definition of autism, the number of children on the spectrum has risen.

Now in fifth grade Josh attends Palisades Elementary School—he has been in one of the school’s Structured Autism Classes since kindergarten.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, regional schools are home to structured programs designed to focus on the needs of students with developmental disorders. So, like Joshua—from San Clemente—students from surrounding areas come to the Capistrano Beach school for tailored classes.

Aside from the R.H. Dana Exceptional Needs Facility, Palisades has the highest population of students with special needs, about 90 students this year, said Palisades Principal Steve Scholl. Students with special needs account for nearly 15 percent of the school’s population, something Scholl said helps integrate children with “typical peers.”

With a 2-to-1 student to teacher or aide ratio, kindergarten to fifth-grade students in the structured autism classes receive the direct attention needed.

But there are times when this focused education is not enough.

Josh Hoggatt, a fifth-grader at Palisades Elementary School, tests out the new motor activity lab. Courtesy photo
Josh Hoggatt, a fifth-grader at Palisades Elementary School, tests out the new motor activity lab. Courtesy photo

Sometimes students need more. Whether it is being overwhelmed or over stimulated, many with autism need some sort of sensory input to bring them back down.

“If you look at these students they have a very difficult time regulating their own sense of calm and the only way they can is through sensory stimulation,” Scholl said. “It could be swinging, touching, sound, silence, dim lighting, jumping, pulling or carrying weight on their shoulders. We look for any sensory contribution that will help that particular student calm down and really be ready to receive educational input.”

To address sensory needs, parents at Palisades teamed up with a local business—Salon Zinnia & Lifestyle Boutique, in San Clemente—to raise $3,500 to furnish an activity lab designed for students with sensory integration disorders to explore their senses.

The motor activity lab features five areas—movement, calm, tactile, listen and visual/fine motor—each designed to address a child’s sensory need.

“He is very sensory seeking,” Hoggatt said of Joshua. “He likes to be outside picking at the grass or leaves and the feeling of them on his fingertips and looking at them in the sunshine. At home and at school, he often asks to be squeezed.

“It’s because his sensory system is kind of out of whack.”

Now, Josh and his peers have an outlet.

The lab is set up much like an occupational therapy center. With beanbag chairs and weighted blankets, listening stations with calming tunes, a mini trampoline, puzzles, art supplies and activities to help students develop motor skills—like writing, snapping buttons and tying shoes—the lab can be utilized by visiting occupational therapists or scheduled by teachers. The lab also functions as a calming place when students need it.

“To be able to have a facility like this at a school, that can be used throughout day, could help so many kids whose parents simply cannot afford to do something outside of the school day,” Hoggatt said.

In 2000, the CDC established the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network in order to collect data and research the prevalence of autism and pervasive developmental disorders—including Asperger’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Rett’s Syndrome—across the nation.

Parents at Palisades Elementary School partnered with one local business to create an activity lab for students with sensory integration disorders. (L to R) Kristy Angus, Principal Steven Scholl and Veronica Hoggatt. Photo by Andrea Papagianis
Parents at Palisades Elementary School partnered with one local business to create an activity lab for students with sensory integration disorders. (L to R) Kristy Angus, Principal Steven Scholl and Veronica Hoggatt. Photo by Andrea Papagianis

With 14 sites—in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin—the ADDM actively surveys children’s evaluation records from birth to 8-years-old, based on a CDC determination of peak prevalence at this age.

Although extensive research continues to be conducted, no specific links have been made between the complex disorder and possible causes—genetics, diet, mercury poisoning or sensitivity to vaccines.

Regardless of the cause of her son’s disorder, Hoggatt said she would like for people to take a step back, have more tolerance and be less judgmental, in order to realize that people like Josh are a large part of our community.

“If you are out at a restaurant, or church or the grocery store and you see a child acting out—screaming or doing something that is inappropriate—rather than automatically assuming that it’s bad parenting or the child is being a brat, realize that the child could have some issues and in fact their acting out could be a part of the disability,” she said.

In doing her part to educate others, Hoggatt said she continues to talk about Joshua’s disorder, “I am not afraid to tell people that he is doing that because he has autism and that’s part of this disorder.”

To build tolerance and break down barriers, she encourages parents with children on the autism spectrum to do the same. Through CUSD’s Parent Support Network, Hoggatt has found support amongst parents and families facing similar challenges.

For more information about connecting with parents of children with special needs, email coordinator Rachel Lewis at

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About The Author Dana Point Times

comments (3)

  • Andrea,
    I cannot express my appreciation for being this story to our community. Palisades lab is a very special place, and our kids are very special members of our community.

    • Veronica,

      How can I help? You know how much I look forward to Joshua’s squeezes!
      I know sometimes I am disappointed when that is not what he wants I do understand, though; that it is not what he needs at that moment but am honored when he wraps me into
      Joshua’s world with those those important squeezes. I will never forget his beautiful smile the first time he responded to my, “Hello Joshua!” He did not say it in words but with his eyes, that I was accepted. I realized then that he felt safe with me. It was a very special feeling. I will always remember that very clearly.

      So let’s do breakfast. We need to talk about this. I would like to be more involved.

  • Andrea,
    Thank you for writing such a great article about Autism and our Motor Lab. I hope it inspires more schools to do the same for their special needs children.
    Kristy Angus

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