Years ago, Americans with lifelong developmental disabilities faced a life with limited opportunities for independent living and scarce opportunities for work, but Janie Sexton, director of the Lonoke Exceptional Development Center, says that is simply not the case anymore.

Cultural attitudes are shifting, she says, and opportunities and services for people with disabilities have become more abundant.

"There’s a lot more opportunity for people with developmental disabilities than there used to be," Sexton said.

That’s where the myriad of services offered by the Lonoke Exceptional Development Center comes in.

"We’re shifting our services to develop these options," she said.

The Lonoke Exceptional School serves preschool age children and adults with developmental disabilities at two locations in the Lonoke County area — one in Lonoke and the other in Cabot. Therapists from the school also work with individuals in their home, according to Sexton.

For a child to qualify for services, he or she must have developmental delays in at least two of the five major areas of child development: fine and gross motor skills, communication, social skills, cognitive skills and self-help skills. For an adult to receive services, they must have been diagnosed with a developmental disability before the age of 21.

"It’s designed for people who have had lifelong disabilities," Sexton said.

Both locations keep typical school hours — 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday — but unlike traditional schools, the centers do not close during the summer.

While there, children receive different types of therapy specific to their needs, Sexton said, and adults learn daily living skills like cooking and workplace preparedness. There is also opportunity for socialization and leisure activities like crafts and gardening.

The Lonoke location has a greenhouse, which is open to the public during regular school hours. This gives students a chance to dig and plant — a hobby enjoyed by many, and also the chance to earn money, as the adult clients are paid for working at the nursery when it’s open, Sexton said.

Currently, the greenhouse sells plants and some seasonal items, such as tomatoes and okra, but Sexton said they would like to expand to offer more items, taking the nursery from a hobby to a business. As it stands right now, the greenhouse makes enough money to sustain itself, but she would like for it to eventually make enough money to put some back into the school.

While both the adults and children at the Cabot location enjoy gardening in some flower boxes at the school, the Cabot location does not yet have a greenhouse, according to Gina Quattlebaum, the school’s public relations representative. Quattlebaum said she there’s a possibility that the Cabot location will eventually have its own greenhouse.

Right now, she said, everyone is just having fun with the flower boxes that are already there. The adult clients like helping the children with the gardening, and everyone has fun planting.

"They get joy out of the little ones," Quattlebaum said. "It’s great for everybody all around."

The school is also participating in a new intensive early intervention program for children with autism, Sexton said. The program offers 20-30 hours a week of in-home therapy for young children with autism.

Sexton said three families have started using the service since it began a month ago, and that there is enough funding for 100 children to participate. Early intervention is key in any developmental disability, she said, and especially with autism.

It can mean less delays later on and can even mean the difference in needing a couple of years of services now, versus needing a lifetime of services later on.

The Autism Waiver is designed for kids between the ages of 18 months and seven years who have Autism. To be eligible to participate, the child must be less than five years old when they begin the program, Sexton said.