Lasting Impact cover

Lasting Impact

Regis Autism Center leverages the power of early intervention

By Kristen Walsh

Regis Today Spring 2018

Research shows that early behavioral intervention can improve the social and cognitive outcomes for toddlers with an autism spectrum disorder.* It sounds like a simple statement, but the positive changes in a child’s life are anything but simple.

“My daughter had always struggled with making eye contact since she was an infant,” says the parent of a 3-year-old student in the Regis Autism Center. She reflects on her child’s time there. “One of my favorite memories is a picture of her in class doing an art project and looking at another child to figure out how to roll the bell in the paint to make the project. She realized she needed help and looked to the peer for the answer. I was so proud.”

Housed within the Regis Children’s Center (RCC) and launched in fall 2017, the Autism Center provides individualized, evidence-based instruction founded in the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). They use various principles, such as positive reinforcement, to bring about a positive change in behavior. The Autism Center serves students as young as 15 months.

“Our model is unique because it provides both high-quality applied behavior analytic services and inclusion opportunities in the classroom,” says Autism Center Co-Director Jacquelyn MacDonald, PhD, BCBA-D, LABA, assistant professor and graduate program director of the Regis ABA program. “It’s something you don’t always see offered at this young age.”

Many agency-based programs work with clients exclusively in their home. Autism Center therapists—who are enrolled in the Regis master’s program in applied behavior analysis—support students in the RCC classroom. This naturalistic approach, “teaching in the moment,” includes techniques to manage a number of situations: leaving a parent and transitioning into the classroom, initiating play with peers, adapting to schedule changes, or engaging in conversation, for example. Programming is individualized based on specific needs.

“Entering into a noisy classroom can be challenging for any student, but particularly for one with autism,” says MacDonald. “One strategy we teach is for the student to take a seat and ‘breathe it all in’ before engaging with peers.”

According to MacDonald, the classroom inclusion piece is a critical component of the Autism Center curriculum model. “Implementing ABA techniques in a traditional classroom setting like the Children’s Center is a great way for students to work on specific skills with their therapist and independently participate in traditional activities alongside their peers. Our goal is that by kindergarten or first grade, they won’t necessarily need us anymore.”

Improving Outcomes

Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) has been shown to be effective over other treatments at producing improved clinical outcomes for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; Howard et al., 2005). Diana Parry-Cruwys, PhD, BCBA-D, LABA, assistant professor and practicum coordinator of the Regis applied behavior analysis master’s program, and co-director of the Autism Center, and colleagues published an article examining the effects of EIBI for very young children and toddlers with ASD across several measures, including joint attention, eye contact, imitation, language, and play (MacDonald et al., 2014). Overall, children of all ages made progress using this model, and the greatest progress was seen for children entering treatment around 18-24 months of age. Ninety percent of children in the 18-24 month age group were performing within in the range of their neurotypical peers on cognitive and joint attention skills following one to two years of EIBI treatment.

A Natural Partnership

Sometimes things happen organically. They just make sense. And that’s what happened when the Autism Center opened as part of the Regis Children’s Center. The collaboration allows RCC students with autism access to appropriate education and care, while graduate students in Regis’ ABA program develop skills through hands-on experience.

“Children who need services have always existed within the Regis Children’s Center but in the past I would have to navigate many different outreach agencies to bring in support,” says RCC Director Rebecca Putnam. “Having the Regis Autism Center has helped ensure quality care because we have beenable to streamline communication and also the approach regarding how students should be educated and supported throughout the day. We are a more cohesive unit.”

The same holds true for Regis graduate students who are fulfilling their practicum requirement. “There is a huge advantage for students to complete their practicum through the Regis Autism Center versus an outside agency because we can ensure quality and also observe how our curriculum and philosophy is being successfully implemented in the classroom setting,” MacDonald says.

The philosophy that Putnam and MacDonald speak of is holistic: viewing the child as a whole in regard to family life and school, and capitalizing on individual strengths across different domains. Taylor Johns ’18, who recently graduated from the Regis ABA program, agrees that aligning objectives with RCC teachers plays an important role in the outcome of her work.

“I’ve worked with other agencies in the past, but it’s much more effective having everyone in the same place and on the same page in regard to the ABA techniques I’m doing with my students,” says Johns. “Having the RCC teachers who are willing to facilitate techniques into the curriculum impacts the success of the student—even if it’s something as simple as repeating directions twice.”

MacDonald likes having constant interactions with Putnam and RCC faculty. “We have discussions before class to make sure everyone is on board. It benefits students in the long run because everybody is working toward the same goal. It’s a collaborative effort and I’m optimistic about changes that can be made with early intervention.”

When a student with autism learns to make eye contact, share a toy, or join in a science experiment with a peer, it may sound simple to some. But Putnam, MacDonald, and Johns don’t think so.

“Seeing that smile coming from a student who learns to independently achieve a goal is why I do this,” Johns says. “It’s amazing to know that they have learned something that will help them throughout their lives.”

Fast Fact

Regis students in the applied behavior analysis master’s program earned a 100% passing rate for first-time testers of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board® (BACB®) exam in 2017.

And the parent of a student in the Autism Center agrees. “My long-term goal is for my daughter to live as independently as she can and to reach her own potential. Every expert we have spoken to states that children with autism have the best outcomes when their autism is treated early in life with intensive, high-quality ABA programming, and ideally with integration if a child can learn in that environment.

“The Regis Autism Center in connection with the Regis Children’s Center is a unique program that achieves all of these things. Each time I drop my daughter off, I am thankful to everyone at Regis for providing my family with this golden opportunity.”

* According to research by Diana Parry-Cruwys, PhD, BCBA-D, LABA, assistant professor and practicum coordinator of the Regis applied behavior analysis master’s program, and co-director of the Autism Center (MacDonald et al., 2014).

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