New Program for Autistic Children Awaits Approval From State

Maddie Bell with her siblings.

by Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.

A new treatment program to address autism and conditions associated with the condition awaits approval before local agencies can utilize it. The fundamental idea behind the program, explains Diane M. Bell, director of Rehabilitation Services for Roanoke’s Interim Healthcare, was to supplement the existing personal care assistance programs in the area.

According to Bell, describes the condition as follows: “Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). The other pervasive developmental disorders are PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified), Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Many parents and professionals refer to this group as Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

“The problem is that personal care assistants often times do not know how to handle or to manage a child with autism—as is true with the general public,” said Bell, whose own 10 year old daughter Maddie is autistic. “Because it is so behaviorally based, most people do not know general techniques in order to manage a child with autism, and therefore may do all the wrong things.  What we found is that personal care assistants, who were ill-equipped to go into a home and to manage a child with autism, simply were not successful.”

There was an additional problem: the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center (BRAC) was receiving calls daily from families seeking help, people who couldn’t afford to send their children to BRAC. Executive director Angie Leonard was seeking a company that could help provide in-home services to be paid through Medicaid funding, so that the parents who didn’t have the out-of-pocket monies to spend could still benefit from what Bell termed “ABA” (applied behavior analysis).

To address those challenges, ASSIST (Autism Solutions, A Collaborative Intensive Systematic Team) was created.  A joint venture of Interim Healthcare and BRAC, ASSIST will provide in-home applied ABA services to children and adolescents with autism.  “Essentially,” says Bell, “there will be an ABA therapist who will go into the home and spend 20 to 30 hours, one-on-one, with each child and/or adolescent, and provide a pure ABA model.  We will also be providing personal care assistance with an ABA focus, and we will be providing physical therapy, occupation therapy, and speech therapy in the home—also with an ABA focus.”

The goal of the program, which involves parents in the process, is to diminish the behaviors associated with autism within the child, to facilitate learning and furnish the best, most therapeutic environment. Unlike school-based services, ASSIST will be completely centered in the home, geared toward what’s important to the child in that environment, developing skills the child should learn—or not learn—in the home, working towards goals the parents want to achieve as well.

Bell calls this “the missing piece.  There does not seem to be a program or a service that [is geared towards] the home.  Up until now, it’s all been educational—through the school system.”  Yet, while ASSIST children will continue to attend their regular school programs, Bell believes that whenever an autistic child receives additional ABA therapy, “you’re always going to end up with a better result. That, in turn, should transition over to the school day.”

In the past, access to ABA therapy was limited, due to the cost of treatment and the fact that school systems focused the program on children they couldn’t manage successfully. Under ASSIST, if approved, Medicaid waivers will cover services. Hence, says Bell, “any child with autism [and] a Medicaid waiver will most likely be able to benefit from this program.”

Currently ASSIST is in the process of being licensed by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services and cannot begin operating until that process is completed.  For now, the program is developing a waiting list.  The disorders ASSIST will treat fall within the autism spectrum: Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive development disorder, Rett syndrome and possibly Angelman’s syndrome.

“It’s always been a dream of this program that we would possibly at some point reach out into other diagnoses,” said Bell, “[such as] mental retardation [and] Down’s syndrome.”  Many other diagnoses outside the autism spectrum are also based in behaviors that “cloud the ability of the child to learn.”

Those seeking further information can contact   Bell at (540) 774-8686, by fax at (540) 774-0279, or by email at [email protected].     

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