When the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone — including health care providers — to serve their clients in new and innovative ways, Healing Haven, a Madison Heights-based Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy center for individuals with autism and other developmental needs, invested that time to reimagine support for the families it serves.
“Out of caution, we closed down and made a game plan for how to proceed safely for our children and our staff. This gave us time to really focus on quality and make sure we were able to provide safe and effective services under changing conditions,” says Jennifer Badalamenti, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven.
Through parent surveys, Healing Haven staff learned that many parents were seeking ways to support their children at home during imposed stay-at-home orders. With all the familiar routines of school and therapy at Healing Haven disrupted, families needed tangible ways to help their children. This in turn helped parents to manage all the time at home and work on maintaining skills their children had learned.
“Our clinic has always been heavily focused on parent training because we really feel it is necessary to provide parents with everything they need to help their children progress,” says Badalamenti. Even pre-pandemic, parents had the opportunity to begin with a three-month, 15-hour per week parent training program where they learned principles of ABA one-on-one with a trainer and their child.
Supportive training for parents
Healing Haven has since returned to in-person therapy with children following all CDC guidelines for safety. Badalamenti has also custom-designed 20 training modules, meant to be delivered remotely, so parents can work with their children at home to maintain skills they have worked so hard to achieve.
Parent training continues in a virtual format for families who have, for many reasons, not returned to in-clinic therapy, as well as for those who have returned. The parenting training is always based on individual needs.
“We have modules for new parents, a sort of ABA 101, for those who have just started with us or who have a new diagnosis, where we talk about ABA concepts and autism,” Badalamenti says. “We try to help them navigate the differences between behaviors related to autism or just typical child behavior. Our model provides a loving and holistic approach with training that generalizes outside our therapy walls.”
Training modules focus on the importance of learning naturally through play, which encourages parents to engage with their children and provide context for social opportunities in the future. “Play is a great way for children to bond with their parents and establish a positive relationship. Parents learn about how to describe, reinforce, imitate and praise their children using a technique we call DRIP,” Badalamenti says. “It helps children recognize their parents as fun people to be around, rather than just another adult that issues commands.”
Additional modules cover child-directed interactions, helping children work on a task independently, how to schedule daily activities so children know what to expect and coping with problem behavior. “Problem behavior is one of the areas we find parents struggle with a lot,” Badalamenti says. “Parents don’t know why their children are hitting or spinning or running away, and we help them learn about the core of our field, which is analyzing behavior. We collect data, analyze it and make a plan based on what the data indicates. If a child is running away from a parent because they don’t like demands, for example, we teach the child to ask for a break from demands. We teach them to negotiate.”
Parents can learn how to best encourage sibling interactions and how to identify individual love languages, how to overcome food selectivity, how to build emotional intelligence and resilience and how to limit screen time, plus many other valuable skills.
Continual support for whole-family well-being
Blended into this training — and into support by Healing Haven in general — is a continual assessment of parents’ well-being and plenty of support to help them in their daily lives to best care for their children and cope with all of their daily commitments.
“Social support has been shown to be effective in alleviating mental health problems, and the past 10 months have been very challenging for most people. Many parents are experiencing depression or anxiety. It’s always on our radar, but we need to listen so when parents need to vent, we are there for them. We provide solutions in our area of expertise, and work in tandem with our team of counselors to help provide families with the support they need,” Badalamenti explains.
“For all children in our clinic, regardless of behavior, we work on relaxation and mindfulness. We bring these protocols into a child’s home and teach parents how to participate in mindfulness exercises when appropriate,” Badalamenti says. “Meditation is extremely powerful and there are a lot of ways to relax, by breathing, even taking a walk and experiencing nature or walking on a treadmill. We’re very solution oriented.”