Studies have found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who receive intensive early intervention services may achieve improved outcomes. That’s why when Marissa Dixon, a Tampa area mom to 3-year-old Jonathan, noticed signs of developmental regression and ASD-associated behavioral patterns, she turned to the Florida Autism Center.
With about 20 locations statewide and a dozen or so more expected to open next year, the Florida Autism Center (FAC) provides applied behavioral analysis (ABA) based services which, according to Autism Speaks, involves clinically-proven techniques and principles that bring about meaningful and positive changes in behavior. Marketing Director Jenn Elston said FAC has “a specific focus on early intensive behavioral intervention, verbal behavior (language) training and social skills training. We also help children to display basic ‘following directions’ skills, self-care and daily living skills.” Using individualized one-on-one support, the ABA therapy early intervention program is designed to “help a child (age 0-5) obtain the skills necessary to achieve mainstream kindergarten readiness or placement in the least restrictive setting.”
“I started FAC because I felt like kids with ASD needed a social setting like a typical school/daycare setting but more personalized to their needs. I felt like center-based services were the way to go, but that parent integration was key to its success. I didn’t feel like a place like that existed quite yet locally [at the time],” explains Chrystin Bullock, the board-certified behavior analyst who founded FAC in 2005. “Basically, I wanted to help every kid on the spectrum live their happiest and most productive life, and the concept of FAC was the vehicle toward making that happen.”
Currently, FAC provides services to 300 clients. Staff routinely connects with parents on a weekly and/or monthly basis. “Families most often tell us that they are so glad to finally have someone on their team. At FAC, we become a part of the journey with an entire family. We are there for the new milestones and the setbacks. No matter what, parents want to feel like there is someone in their child’s corner ─ we are that support system for them and we are also the people who give parents the tools to succeed and the training to make it work,” says Elston.
FAC includes a small private school catering to children up to 12 years old. “We want to give them a classroom with two or three students with individualized attention where they can work on grade level toward their own goals,” Bullock shared. The school aims to match the Sunshine State Standards and Common Core curriculum. “We’re able to use Applied Behavioral Analysis to teach the goals and the core curriculum that is provided for the Florida State Standards,” says Dr. Kerri Peters, Center Director–Gainesville. “We’re able to use smaller ratios at the Florida Autism Center to get most of the clients up to their academic level so we can hopefully transition them back into their school placement.” And, of course, the day includes plenty of age-appropriate fun too! Play and recess are used to enhance both social skills and gross motor skills.
Additionally, FAC offers one-on-one ABA therapy services ─ both full day and after school services (for students at FAC or any school) ─ to work on social skills, pre-academics and community integration. FAC goes above and beyond to positively impact the lives of its clients. Dr. Peters says that families often face challenges with real-world situations, like going to the dentist and grocery store or, as with young Jonathan, a fear of getting haircuts. “We individualize therapy to allow them access to practice the skills that they need to go to [for example] the dentist. We’ll set up an environment at the clinic that looks just like their dentist’s office. We’ll go to the dentist office to see how they do at a visit and, then, we’ll try to teach them the [needed] skills in their day-to-day therapy. And then we’ll go back to the dentist and see if the skills that we are teaching them generalize to the setting that it’s necessary to succeed in,” she says.
Bullock proclaims that transition remains a primary objective. “The goal here is that we want your child to outgrow us! We want your child to not need to be in a therapy setting like this. We want to teach them everything we can teach them, and [then] go off and do it on their own. I think the very best endorsement is a parent saying ‘I went there and I don’t need to go there anymore.’” Key partnerships help FAC maintain their objectives and success rate. “Our collaboration with the University of Florida allows us to take the latest and greatest data-based research and implement it directly into our locations across the state ─everything from food acceptance to toileting. We are incredibly innovative as a result and have led the industry with some of our programs,” proclaims Elston. FAC also aligns with Nova Southeastern University and the Florida Institute ofTechnology.
Most services are billed through insurance. “That world [of payment] can be confusing and we want to take that burden away from them so they can focus on their child,” Elston says. FAC also accepts private pay, as well as the McKayand Gardiner Scholarships. To learn more, visit flautism.com or call (866)610-0580.