There’s no type of entrance exam to enroll in any of the Mile Zero Consultation programs in Islip.
Potential enrollees don’t need to have a medical diagnosis either.
And you can’t just come throwing money around.
In other words, the young person has to say he or she wants in.
“It cannot come from their parents,” Sirc-Chandler said. “The individual themselves have to tell me they want to be here. And if they won’t, then they have a waiting period. That teaches the idea that you can’t say things you don’t mean; you have to follow through.”
So the lessons begin at the door.
Mile Zero Consultation opened earlier this year at 560 Main Street in Islip, with its founders — both having extensive educational experience — filling in what they found were major gaps in special education at the high school and earlier levels.
“We were sending students out into the world with an academic education but we weren’t giving them the social skills to function,” said Sirc-Chandler. “You would have these kids who were getting diplomas and then bombing out of jobs.”
At Mile Zero, it’s not about passing the next quiz; the goals are long-term.
It’s all about the road to adulthood. As the company’s tagline indicates, that road starts at Mile Zero — inspired by the famous Mile Marker O in Key West, Fla.
“Up to age 21, students are covered by their school districts for services, but once they’re over 21 those services are almost non-existent,” said Dr. Milla. “Programs, vocational opportunities are greatly reduced.
“What we are tying to focus on with families is helping them blaze a path, to navigate the future with respect to how to prep the child for living with them, or in the community, well after the age of 21.”
That means teaching these young people things that are seemingly simple, like walking.
“We’ll go out and work on things so silly as the pace at which we walk,” Sirc-Chandler explained. “Believe it or not, those are skills that don’t come naturally to everyone.”
Using downtown Islip as her classroom, she will point out to a student if he or she is walking too fast — indicating that it looks odd, given the environment.
Then of course, the student will walk too slow, Sirc-Chandler laughed.
There are currently about 20 students enrolled in programs offered at Mile Zero, which fully involve the parents or caretakers.
At a recent visit to the Mile Zero campus by greaterbayshore.com, three high school-age students showed up for a social skills group as part of a program called PEERS.
Sirc-Chandler is certified to teach the program, though it’s not a requirement.
PEERS is as a data-based social skills program designed at UCLA.
“The whole program is based on the steps it takes to make a friend, not just be around people,” she said. “It’s the program for making and keeping friends.”
On this night, the three students sat with Sirc-Chandler while the parents were ushered into another room, behind a closed door, for instructions of their own.
“They’re learning how to be social coaches,” Sirc-Chandler said of the parents. “They’re learning all the steps their kids are learning, and how to diplomatically point out to their children when they did something wrong.”
The parents also work to identify potential resources through which their kids can meet other young people with similar interests, and, eventually, form meaningful relationships.
Like in any other classroom, the lesson kicked off with a review of homework, which involved making phone calls to people both within the students’ social circles and outside of those.
One student, Julia, reported being on the phone for 11 minutes, which was quickly declared “the longest phone call ever” by Ms. Tracy.
“We exchanged common interests; we both likes movies,” said Julia. “And we talked about school. I asked her what she was going to college for, and she said she was going to be a psychologist.”
“Did you ask about that, like why that interest?” Ms. Tracy asked.
The class didn’t just report on how their calls went, but broke them down. They soon learned that Matt and Kevin needed to work on their cover stories.
“Matt, what’s a cover story?” Ms. Tracy asked.
“The reason for calling,” he responded.
As Sirc-Chandler later explained, after class, the phone calls were broken into three parts: cover stories, trading information and ending a phone call properly.
“Not just saying, ‘OK, bye!’” she said.
Among other professional experiences in the field, Sirc-Chandler served as a chief behavior consultant for entire school districts on Long Island.
Dr. Milla is a board certified and licensed behavior analyst who has worked with children with autism for nearly 30 years. She also teaches college courses.
The two became fast friends while Sirc-Chandler was a student of Dr. Milla’s. It was during multiple conversations that they decided to launch Mile Zero.
“We started talking about where the needs are,” Dr. Milla said. “And giving the parents help and teaching the parents, not just having them drop their child off for an experience and not knowing what went on.”
Sirc-Chandler said one of their big challenges is getting the word out to families that these services are now available locally.
As for getting the children to verbally commit, Sirc-Chandler said sometimes they’ll even surprise her with their desire to change.
Take what one child recently said:
“I want to be in your group because I don’t have any friends.”
“And it’s like, oh my God,” Sirc-Chandler said. “It tripped me up. So I said, ‘Bravo to you for owning that and wanting to do something about it.”
And so, onto Mile Marker 1.
Photo: A recent PEERS group (Tracy Sirc-Chandler, standing) at Mile Zero in Islip.