By ANN ALI ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
WHEELING — Parents of children with autism face struggles every day, and for some of them, it includes things as basic and heart wrenching as teaching those children to make eye contact.
A place in Wheeling works to conquer some of those struggles.
"If you want to see a miracle, listen to my son sing happily or ask for something he needs or wants," Fran Adams, parent of a child at Augusta Levy Learning Center, said in a testimonial on the center's website. "They have given me the best gift I could ever hope to have and that is my child's voice, smile and attention."
Augusta Levy Learning Center started in June 2005, and back then, it was one of the few evidence-based autism treatment program in the state. The center uses Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which is an evidence-based, individualized treatment for children with autism.
"You really can't take a break from autism," said Kathy Shapell, executive director of Augusta Levy. "The children's needs are such that we're trying to bring them out of autism, and if you are lax about that, they can tend to slip back into their own world, and we want to sort of force them to be in our world."
Shapell said research has shown 30 to 40 hours per week of one-on-one, intensive ABA will provide the best outcomes.
"Each of our children here full-time get 35 hours a week of one-on-one intervention from highly skilled and trained ABA therapists, overseen by Board Certified Behavior Analysts," she said. "And another really important key component to our program – this is also what is shown in the research – is a strong parent component, and we train our parents just as we do our staff."
Shapell, who was a special education teacher in the Washington, D.C., area before moving back to the Upper Ohio Valley she grew up in to raise her own two children, said ABA therapy is different for each child and tailored for each age range. The children move to different rooms throughout the day and rotate among the three or four therapists in their treatment teams to be sure the things they learn can be functional and transitioned to real-life settings.
"Children who are babies or even toddlers, it's very play-based because that's what their work is," she said. "By the time a child is 3, we like them to transition to the center, and some of the kids we get have tried school settings and it just has not worked for them because of a lack of communications skills. They tend to have behaviors, and it just hasn't been successful."
Shapell said Augusta Levy is considered alternative placement for the older children. The goal is a transition into neighborhood schools, which two-thirds of graduates of the center have. The average time at the center is about two years for each child, but some transition in 14 months and others do it in four years.
"These are kids who when we get them, they don't even appear to understand what's being said to them, and they really don't show an interest in learning from the natural environment like a typically developing child would," Shapell said. "We're teaching them how to learn, first with very basic one-word instructions, and then it becomes very, very complex so that you're teaching them how to have a conversation and how to initiate play.
"It can get very intense, we've had kids who were solving for ‘x,' reading, doing things with very complicated cognitive skills, but also for them, navigating that social piece is the single-most challenging piece they have, by nature of the condition."
In 2012, one in every 88 children is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to the CDC, and Shapell said even seven years ago when Augusta Levy opened, the children there were older because that's when they were first diagnosed.
"Now we've seen a shift," she said. "Diagnosticians, pediatricians in our state, must be getting better at identifying autism because we're seeing babies, 18 months, 22, 24 months, and that's fantastic because it allows them to receive earlier intervention.
"A 6-year-old who isn't talking and just got diagnosed – that's a lot to catch up on."
The center can typically only serve 15 children at a time. Despite a waiting list with more than 100 names on it, no one is turned away because of an inability to pay, and students come from throughout the tri-state area.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who was on hand for a ceremonial signing of a new law to provide insurance coverage for ABA, gave high praise to Augusta Levy.
"This center has provided hope to parents of many of our special needs children," Kessler said. "The services available in our community have proven to be a God-send to our children and their families."
Shapell said most members of her 13-therapist staff are natives of the upper Ohio Valley, thanks to internships and partnerships with area colleges and universities, and each month staff receives training.
"It's not for everyone, but I will say I have never in my career worked with a group of people like the therapists we have," she said. "They are incredibly dedicated, and they eat, breathe and sleep ABA, and are just constantly striving to find out what else can we do to reach this child, and I love that.
"I love that they never stop believing in our kids and trying to find what's best for helping them break through."