Navigating therapy for kids on the autism spectrum can feel like a full-time job. When therapy recommendations reach 20 to 40 hours a week for ABA, occupational and speech therapies, kids often have little time for school, not to mention social experiences. Is there a way to strike a balance between ABA therapy and school?
“For families just starting out in ABA therapy, the idea of therapeutic intensity can come as a great surprise,” says Jamie McGillivary, BCBA, President and Founder of Healing Haven, a Madison Heights-based ABA therapy provider. “Because children with autism are not always one-trial learners, that intensity makes a profound impact, but we have to figure out how to help the family keep balance by not overdoing it. We need to make sure that every child still has time to be a kid.”
‘Shaping memories of childhood’
Balance lies in providing only the amount of therapy that is medically necessary and using a naturalistic approach, says McGillivary. When children can learn important life skills through naturalistic teaching, they gain social skills while enjoying the playtime they need as children.
“Play is the work of childhood, and this applies to all kids,” she says. “We never want to underestimate the importance of that. So, we provide therapy that addresses their needs in a way that allows for balance — because we are creating fun, memorable experiences.
In everyday life, when there’s so much else to think about, try to consider the bigger picture, suggests McGillivary. When your child grows to adulthood, what memories do you want them to have from childhood?
“We don’t lose sight of the fact that when kids are with us for extended periods of time, we are pivotal in shaping the memories of their childhood,” she says. At Healing Haven, the therapy team tells parents they want kids to look back and remember playing with friends — not sitting at a table with a therapist.
“We also try to prepare kids for new experiences in the community,” she says. “Doing so sets the stage for allowing them to enjoy the novelty of vacations and fun family experiences that happen outside of therapy. We recognize that families may grieve the loss of childhood when they are constantly on the go jumping from school to therapy. As such, prioritizing family experiences is part of the journey as well.”
Balance between ABA therapy and school
ABA therapy should not be considered a replacement for school, but a method of teaching children with autism all the skills that will make them more successful in a school setting.
“In the beginning, the balance is heavier on the ABA side, and eventually that balance shifts to be heavier on school,” explains McGillivary. “Once children have gathered the prerequisite skills to make school an effective learning environment, we have to then be creative with what we offer.”
Some families want their child to go from school to ABA therapy, but McGillivary says it’s not recommended for all children to have a 12-hour day of school and therapy. It is certainly not for children younger than age 8 or so.
“We help parents recognize that when their child is little, too much intervention can be taxing on them. After a long day of school, they may gain more from coming home and playing on their swing set or going for a walk with their family. These are pivotal family and childhood elements,” she says. This is why daytime services are recommended most frequently for younger children who are just beginning to acquire skills.
When older children with autism need additional support after school, McGillivary suggests services that emphasize language, socialization and independence.
If children have greater struggles and need additional services, parents should work with a clinician to determine what would be the best fit — and always keep a balance between ABA therapy and school in mind.
For children ages 8-16, Healing Haven offers a program called Harmony — a name that describes what it seeks to achieve for children who may need additional ABA support in the evenings and on Saturdays.
“In our Harmony program, we place an emphasis on language, social skills and pre-vocational skills. Some of our work takes place ingroup settings while we socially engage with buddies, follow schedules, follow multi-step instructions and work on being flexible,” says McGillivary.
Children may spend two or three hours in the Harmony sessions that take place Monday through Thursday, or in three- or five-hour sessions on Saturday. As with other programs at Healing Haven, parent training maximizes outcomes and is a requirement.
Many ABA therapy providers do not offer services to children past the elementary age. Healing Haven recognizes that many children continue to need additional support past these ages. While these kids are making gains at school, sometimes it is just not enough. Families come to Healing Haven for that extra support.
When everything your child needs can seem to carry equal weight, it’s important to remember that balance is often a moving target. And that’s normal, says McGillivary.
“Balance can often feel elusive, like it is a moving target. Working with a team that can help you assess what is most important at the moment for your child and family and accommodate accordingly is important. The intensity is imperative, particularly at the start of the child’s journey, and sometimes families need logistical help to figure out how to achieve that intensity,” she explains.
“Naturalistic therapy goes a long way to help families find balance. Fortunately, that can be embedded right into a child’s therapy, so look for a provider with flexibility and always be a part of the experience,” she says. “Work in collaboration with a team that is respectful of your child’s need to be a kid, having a lived kid experience.”
Expertise brought to you by Healing Haven. Learn more at thehealinghaven.net.