CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., March 21, 2016 – The Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment at Southeast Missouri State University has launched a new initiative to provide center-based early intensive behavior intervention for preschoolers.
“Building Blocks” is a program specialized in providing applied behavior analytic (ABA) services, using principles of behavior analysis and the science of behavior in a preschool setting. Under the supervision of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Southeast students work one-on-one with individual children with autism and come together for group activities.
“It’s a good mixture of both one-on-one time and a group setting and really benefits the kids,” said Dr. Melissa King, director of the Center. “This program prepares them for preschool or, if they’re already in school, it helps to reinforce their skills.”
The new program is part of an effort to expand the Center’s services and reach more families in the community, said King.
The three-hour session meets twice a week. Ten Southeast students spend six to eight hours a week preparing for sessions, working with the children and writing reports. Currently, six children participate in the program.
In “Building Blocks,” Southeast students focus not only on the children’s communication skills but also on life skills, such as eating or going to the restroom, and just being a kid, such as playing or interacting with other children.
“Even if it looks like they’re just playing, every child has a set of goals that the students are helping them accomplish,” said King. Before receiving care, every child goes through an assessment process to determine their needs, and decisions throughout their treatment are made systematically and based on collected data.
“This is the practical application of everything that’s in their textbook and beyond,” said King. “There’s a lot you just can’t learn in a textbook.”
The program has made an impact for both students outside the classroom and children who are entering a classroom for the first time.
Ashley Showalter and Julie Koch have already seen the success of the one-month-old program in their sons Trenton and Grant.
“Some of the therapies have ended up being some of his favorite things,” said Showalter. “Before it was hard to even find what Trenton liked, but now with him coming here, you can tell he likes certain therapy related toys.”
Showalter is an administrative assistant in Southeast’s Jane Stephens Honors Program and is currently working on her master’s degree in applied behavior analysis.
She started bringing Trenton to the Autism Center in 2014.They participated in a similar program last year but it was only a week long. When she heard the Center was opening the “Building Blocks” program, she knew she had to do everything she could to get Trenton registered.
Trenton communicates nonverbally. He shows his mom he wants something by pushing her towards the item or bringing it to her. Showalter can tell he likes something by the amount of time he spends with the toy or doing an action.
But every day, like the other children with autism in his Building Blocks group, Trenton sees and interprets the world differently.
The center also has helped meet the needs of Koch’s son Grant since he first attended one-on-one sessions when he was three. Koch said he also participated in the similar weeklong program last year, and she knew he would excel in the permanent weekly program.
Grant also communicates nonverbally and will be turning six this June. His interaction with the other children and Southeast students enhances his sessions.
“He has made a lot of progress, and it helps for me to see him do his programs with other kids and several implementers. He’s not learning one thing with one person but with multiple implementers,” said Koch, a 2001 Southeast graduate. “He’s able to carry over what he’s learned in a one-one-on more intensive setting and generalize that into circle time or music time so that he is able to participate better in those activities.”
The students and children do everything together: color, play with toys or learn new words or objects. The tasks and challenges for each child are different and vary day to day.
With Grant, the students are focusing on everything from lunch and recess, washing his hands and unpacking his food and napkin, to throwing away his trash and going to play.
Interacting with the adults and children and expressing himself is part of his growth, said Koch.
The Southeast students report each day’s events. Over time they witness each child’s growth and progress.
“It’s nice to be able to track their progress and to see them hit each mark and goal along the way,” said Meghan Becker of O’Fallon, Missouri, a freshman communication disorders major and autism studies minor.
For Becker and her fellow students, seeing the children be successful in a task is gratifying.
“He gets so excited when he accomplishes something,” said Becker about the child with whom she works. “His facial expression, his body language, it’s hard to describe, but the feeling I get seeing his reaction and knowing he achieved something is so amazing for me.”
The children’s accomplishments in class are making a difference in their lives at home as well.
“Thankfully he carries a lot of what he learns over to home, and we see a lot of what he’s doing here,” said Koch. “They’ve been really working hard on waving ‘hi’ and ‘bye,’ and I didn’t realize that at first. But we noticed at home that we wave to him and he put his hand up and waved back to us for the first time. It took us aback, and the next day we came back and it was on his progress report here.”
Showalter added, “With Trenton, in general, it may take him a whole semester. He might not completely master something, but it’s the little steps in between he’s mastered.”
The little steps Grant and Trenton have made in Building Blocks have really helped their busy mothers who must find the time to sit down with them and do the same things with them repetitively, said Showalter.
“It’s hard to even tell yourself ‘I have to keep doing this,’” she said. “Repetition is so time consuming, but you have to do it. It’s nice to have a group of individuals that help him achieve goals.”
Having someone who is trained and knows the benefits of repetition training and ABA skills helps her as a parent even more, said Showalter.
Becker has worked with children with special needs since her freshman year in high school, specifically with a program that provided babysitting services to parents.
“This is my first experience working with a structured program where I get to see the bigger picture from start to finish and the importance of what we do,” she said.
Training the students today to be experts tomorrow is another one of the benefits of the Building Blocks program, said Leanne Hopper, a board certified behavior analyst with the Center.
“To have hands-on experience at this intensity is amazing,” she said. “They get just as much training as the kids. They realize they have a lot more patience than they thought they had, and they get a strong appreciation for the science and application of behavior analysis.”
Hailey Sawyer of Galt, Missouri, a freshman communications disorders major and autism studies minor, mentored under a speech pathologist in high school but wanted to work with young children.
“It’s really amazing to watch them grow, but as a freshman, it’s even more amazing to me because not many students could say they taught a kid to talk,” said Sawyer.
The hands-on experience will also prepare them for success no matter what career field they enter, said Hopper.
Meagan Hale of Imperial, Missouri, a sophomore communication disorders major and Spanish minor, hopes to become a speech therapist and work in a diverse environment where she can help more children.
She realized the impact she can have when the child she works with vocalized a word.
“I had never heard him try to talk like that before, and it made me so happy,” said Hale. “I was so proud of him.”
Sawyer has had similar experiences with the child she works with who began using noises at certain times to vocalize his wants or needs.
“It’s really awesome to see him know to say ‘uh,’ for ‘up,’” said Sawyer. “I hope he starts vocalizing more words and knowing he can express himself. I know it’s hard for him because he can’t talk, and I want him to be able to express himself.”
The students have also seen how their interaction with the children helps them become better caregivers, teachers or therapists.
“I want to grow and be more knowledgeable in how I can help,” said Becker. “This is beyond just seeing it in a textbook but doing it and continuing to improve.”
Gaining the experiences with and knowledge of ABA services while still in college will not only prepare the students for finding a job, but also give them the skills to change the lives of the children and the families they help.
“Autism is not a bad thing. Sometimes people think it is, but we don’t even understand the things that they see, the way that they see them,” said Showalter. “They see things way differently than we ever could have imagined.”
“With Grant, until he hit age three, I attribute all his progress to ABA and it’s amazing to watch him,” said Koch. “Something as simple as doing a puzzle can be a struggle for him, but the way they work with him and work through it, he’s able to do all sorts of puzzles now. It works for him.”
King hopes to expand the Building Blocks program to include another six children and two more three-hour sessions a week.
“Every opportunity can be a learning opportunity and for these children you look at every opportunity to teach them something,” she said. “If we can bring more services and involve Southeast’s students, we can help more children and families in the community.”
For more information about this program and other services provided by the Autism Center, visit http://www.semo.edu/autismcenter/.