Monday, June 22, 2015

Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) is Now Texas Law

By Anna Hundley

I am pleased to report Governor Greg Abbott has signed the Texas ABLE Act into law. If you haven’t been following this legislation, the acronym stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience. I am excited for the families who will now be able to better plan for their child’s future financial needs to help cover the high costs of education, housing, transportation, medical bills, and other expenses related to their disability.

This is a very big step in providing new tools to help Texas families touched by autism to invest in their child’s future while paying for costly day-to-day needs. Families will be able to add up to $14,000 per year toward the ABLE accounts with a much-higher overall cap to pay for expenses. Once the Texas Comptroller’s office establishes the rules and regulations for the tax-free ABLE accounts, Texas families begin to set aside funds to pay for day-to-day expenses without jeopardizing an individual’s SSI or Medicaid benefits.

It has been a long journey in getting this much-needed legislation passed. On the federal level, I would like to thank Congressman Pete Sessions for his leadership in representing the Dallas area. As a father to a son with special needs, he understands the real struggle families sometimes face.

In the Texas Legislature, it was truly a team effort from all members to get this legislation passed. This legislation also showed that when it comes to helping families with disabilities, there are no party labels. In the Texas Senate, the vote was unanimous. In the Texas House, the vote was 138-1. I am proud of all Republicans and Democrats who put aside partisan politics for the good of Texas.

At the Autism Treatment Center, we are fond of saying that our programs Change Lives and Build Futures. ABLE accounts will provide ATC with more resources to help us fulfill our mission to “assist people with autism and related disorders throughout their lives as they learn, play, work and live in the community.”

As more information is made available about setting up ABLE accounts, we will gladly share with you to use in your decision-making process to best meet future financial needs for your family.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Here to Help

When BB was 22 years old she moved in to a residential home at the Autism Treatment Center.  Today BB is 52 years old and she still lives in a home at ATC. Her mom and dad, who are retired, live close by and BB frequently goes home for weekends and holidays. BB has a special room at her parent’s home with many items she loves to collect. She also has a special room at ATC with her treasures. BB recently got an iPad and loves using it for entertainment and learning new skills. On most visits home BB is calm, cooperative, and happy.

However, the holidays are a very stressful time for her. She will raise her voice and ask the same question over and over. With coaching she can usually reduce her anxiety to an acceptable level. This past Thanksgiving though her anxiety was so intense that she started to seriously harm herself. Her parents could not get her calmed down, so BB’s mom called the ATC nurse and Case Manager at 10:30pm Thanksgiving night. They, in turn, called the Residential Coordinator and House Manager of BB’s home. The Coordinator and Manager went to BB’s family home and worked with her until 1am.

They were able to help her calm down, go to bed, and finally go to sleep. The next day, BB’s mom came to the Center and stopped by my office to tell me how grateful she and BB’s dad are that “staff are willing to come and assist in the middle of the night and that they always seem to know just what to do.”

BB remained at home until Sunday evening when she returned to her ATC home without any additional problems. I am so proud to be the Executive Director of ATC for many reasons, but this situation illustrates “Community Services” at its pinnacle. The team at ATC is dedicated, passionate, skillful and has years of experience working with and teaching children and adults with autism.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Meet Daniel.

Daniel first arrived at the Autism Treatment Center a month past his third birthday. Daniel was diagnosed with autism and the symptoms of his autism were affecting his family's everyday life.

Leaving the house to run errands, going to appointments or family outings became very challenging due to his tantrums and anxiety when he had to leave his room. His social awareness of others was very minimal and he did not acknowledge other people nor did he want to interact with his sisters when they played. It was a challenge developing a strong sibling relationship. If other peers got too close to him he could become aggressive and hit them to keep them away. He did not show affection to his family and did not want to engage in family activities. Daniel's diagnosis of autism led his parents to ATC's Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) program and he was enrolled in a 20 hour/week program consisting of one on one Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy (ABA) and monthly parent training.

ATC's therapists began working with Daniel to increase his social skills, independence, and communication. Beginning by teaching Daniel to notice other people and peers, each session reinforced and increased his motivation to engage with others. His social skills began developing. He was taught to ask for toys and items he wanted from his peers and he learned how to play with toys, pretend play, and role play. Daniel learned how to ask his peers to play and his parents began to see these skills at home as he started to interact with his sisters. He wanted to be a part of their world!

Daniel learned skills to increase his independence as well. He became potty trained and he learned how to brush his teeth, wash his hands, and dress himself. During potty training he would actively seek out others approval running to therapists for hugs proudly yelling "I did it!" He would want to call his parents and tell them the good news. This was an ecstatic moment for everyone on Daniel's team. The boy who came to ATC wanting to sit by himself on the floor, avoiding contact with therapists and peers, and who cried and screamed during transitions became a distant memory.

Daniel now initiates conversations with his peers and helps the therapists teach other kids to interact. He will spontaneously sit down at snack time and ask the other kids what they are eating, ask if they like it, and tell them what he has that day. When a new student arrives he says hello and asks them their name.

Because of his accomplishments, Daniel has recently graduated from the Autism Treatment Center's DARS ABA program and is now attending a general education kindergarten class. His teacher was able to observe and be trained by the Autism Treatment Center's team through the DARS program. 

Daniel has made a smooth transition to the general education classroom. He plays with his sisters and wants to do everything they do and does not want to be left out of any family outing. His parents are thrilled with the progress he made and the foundational skills he developed with the help of the ATC/DARS ABA program.  They are now looking forward to his continued success!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Meet Jalen.

Jalen was diagnosed with autism at age 3.  He attended a DISD elementary school and was placed in the Special Education programs where he displayed typical development and hit all his milestones on schedule despite his autism diagnosis.

As he grew older, he began to display different behavior. Jalen often attended his older brother’s athletic outings, but was no longer able to attend as he had the tendency to run away from his parents. When Jalen hit the teenage years his behavior worsened and he began to be a danger to himself and others. He began to display challenging, destructive, and violent behavior. At school, Jalen began to fight his school peers and other adults. He damaged school property and was a danger to himself and others around him.

During the 2009-2010 school year, DISD officials contacted ATC for placement in the ATC Educational Program for Jalen. His behavioral and academic needs were not being met with the local school district. The day ATC’s Educational Coordinator and Behavior Analyst visited Jalen at his school, Jalen’s behavior grew out of control. While waiting in a classroom with his teacher, Jalen started to throw lunch boxes, computers, and anything he could get his hands on. For her own safety, the teacher quickly left the room and found four athletic coaches who could come into the room and subdue Jalen. Once he was under control, the Educational Coordinator was able to do an assessment of his needs.

Jalen was found to be in need of an autism-specific curriculum and support system to replace his challenging behaviors with positive behavior.  

After Jalen's parents, Chiniqua and Greg, visited with ATC’s Program Director, Dr. Garver, and Educational Coordinator, Ms. Hoover.  They felt enrollment in ATC’s Educational Program would provide their son with the curriculum and support system he needs. According to Jalen’s parents, they “just wanted Jalen to experience happiness again.”

At first, Jalen had no real understanding of his placement at ATC. However, after time, he became familiar with his teachers, behavior therapists, and other staff. More importantly, his behavior changed. He no longer is a threat to himself and others.

Jalen’s individualized service plan was made with involvement from his parents, teachers, behavioral therapists, and DISD educators. His immediate goal is to control his disruptive behaviors and provide for stabilization. Long-term goals include working on Jalen’s preferred diet to work on nutritional habits and for Jalen to learn a vocational skill in the area of cooking or industrial trades.

Four years after enrollment, Jalen has made long strides in controlling his behavior and he enjoys learning.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

From Shoelaces to Braces

by Anna Hundley, ATC Executive Director

While serving as Executive Director of the Autism Treatment Centers of Texas since 1982, there have been many challenges along the way.  As you might guess, most of them have to do with funding critical services for children and adults in our program.  I’ve been around long enough to know that budget issues are never going away and must be tackled head on.  Kicking the can down the road only gets costlier.  That’s the issue the Texas Legislature is dealing with now.

For over twenty years, the Department of Family Protective Services has placed children with autism and challenging behaviors with ATC.  Currently, 29 children are enrolled in ATC programs for direct-care services.  From community-based group homes to one-on-one autism-specific therapies, ATC takes care of their every need providing everything from shoelaces to braces.

Often times, once a child is placed at ATC for early-intervention services, they turn into lifetime services.  Many of the kids placed at ATC by FPS are still with us, but now in Adult Services.  The continuity of services and familiarity with staff members has only contributed to their increased independence and overall quality of life.  To provide a lifetime of quality care, however, requires money.  ATC cannot shoulder the entire cost. 

State reimbursements fund approximately 80% of the entire cost of providing an array of services for each individual.  Private fundraising, wise stewardship of limited resources, and an engaged Board of Directors help us sustain the programs while keeping them affordable to families in the community seeking our services. 

An August 1 article in the Dallas Morning News reported a state contractor for protective children’s services pulled out of a $30 million a year contract due to problems with adequate funding.  Stories like this are not unusual.  While it takes a significant investment for state agencies to appropriately support children, they deserve nothing less than safe and comfortable housing.  When the 84th Legislature convenes in Austin in January 2015, they will decide important state-wide issues, including agency budgets.

As the costs of providing children under FPS custody increase, state leaders will be forced to deal with this issue.  After all, state budgets reveal our priorities.   I remain positive that children removed from their home for neglect, abuse, and trauma will receive the proper funding for them to be successful in their lives. ATC is committed to providing every opportunity for the children enrolled in our programs to learn, play, work, and live in their community.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Congrats Class of 2014! What's next?

Thirteen years of education has come to an end.  There were good times, there were bad times, and there were we-made-it-through-the-day times. Whether the child attended "mainstream" classes, special education classes in a public school, or had a specialized education at a place like the Autism Treatment Center, the educational experience for families affected by autism was very different from nearly every other family on the block.  Students with autism are as different from each other as any other student is from the next, and every child has their own best method for learning.  The autism student may or may not have enrolled in AP English, played a sport, learned to drive, or gone to senior prom, but they had their own milestones along the way that are just as worthy for celebration.  Happy Graduation Day!

At the end of this long long road many parents experience the joy and trepidation of sending their child off into the "real world".  Many parents will drop their son or daughter off at the university dorms in the fall.  For the parent with a child with autism, the joy might be quickly outweighed by the nervousness that comes with the question: What next?  Many parents knew that after graduation college would not be the next step for their child.  It is estimated that over 2,000 students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) graduate from Texas schools each year.  While many may be off to college in the fall, there is a large percentage who will not.
As students become adults treatment and program options change.  They were once enrolled in a structured educational environment that filled their day, which was possibly provided by the State.  Upon graduation, or "aging-out", students and parents are left to find their next steps.  This is where many adults with autism fall through the cracks.  Without the structure that was once provided, recent graduates may be filling their time by playing video games, watching tv, or simply sitting in their room.  This may sound like the typical teenage summer, but this behavior can often become a permanent way of life for these adults.  While support services for adults are scarce, there are options to ensure that a student with autism can continue to progress and learn; it just takes a little research and work to find, and maybe even create them.

Though the autism community is growing, it is still a small group.  Chances are parents of children with autism know one another.  The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child and this is never more true than with a special needs child.  There are many support and peer groups in the community where parents and adults with autism can commune.  Parents are able to seek advice and adults with ASD can practice communication and social skills.  The Autism Treatment Center hosts a peer group once a month where adults in the community can come together for a life-skills lesson, dinner, comradery, and a chance to practice communicating.

Parents can also search for Transitional and Employment programs and services.  There are many employers with programs specifically focused on hiring adults with developmental challenges.  These businesses are committed to working with individuals to help them succeed and be an active member of the community.  Many in the Adult Services program at ATC spend several days a month volunteering at nonprofit organizations like World Vision, Volunteer Center, and Meals on Wheels.  Lora, one of the adult volunteers, says "I deliver food to old people! I like it. My favorite thing is giving people their meals and everything. I want to tell them thank you for letting me help."  Read more about ATC Volunteering here.

Heading off in to the "real world" can be scary, but having a plan and a support group can help make the transition easier.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Meeting the Needs.

Have you ever wanted to take a cruise or even go to the movies, but thought that the needs of your child with autism would not allow such a vacation or outing?

We have good news.  Lately, we have received more and more notices about companies who are paying special attention to the needs of families affected by autism by providing autism-friendly activities and versions of their services.  We are always delighted to hear about these wonderful opportunities for families with special needs.  While ATC has not participated in all of these programs, we do want to share with our readers that there are options out there to experience many of the things you may feel like you are missing. Below are a few of the companies we know about that are taking action to include as many families as possible.

Royal Caribbean - This year, Autism At Sea named Royal Caribbean as the world's first certified autism friendly cruise line. Royal Caribbean offers sensory friendly films and toys, alternative menu options, and autism friendly training for Adventure Ocean staff. You can read more about their programs here

Studio Movie Grill - The SMG Special Needs Screening series presents family friendly movies for free for children with special needs and their siblings with a discounted admission for adults ($6).  Movies are shown with increased lighting and decreased volume.  Children are free to experience the movie as they like, there is no need to worry about attempting to keep them in their seats and quiet.  Click here for locations and information about screenings in your area.

AMC Theaters - AMC's Sensory Friendly Films program offers special screenings on a monthly basis in select communities.  Audience members are invited to get-up, dance, shout, and sing.  Click here for info on movies in your area.

Live theaters are also presenting special performances.  Fans of The Lion King and Mary Poppins can see an autism-friendly performance
of these shows on Broadway that include adjusted lighting and sound, quiet areas, and fidgets - small toys to be held during the show. Volunteers are trained to answer questions and provide assistance during the play.  Not in NYC?  Look up your local theater, more and more theaters have added a special performance to their schedule.

If there's a museum, amusement park, or other business you'd like to visit, just give them a call and ask about their programs.  The AMC Sensory Friendly Series was started because one parent called to ask if they had a program for special needs.  If your local business doesn't yet have a program, you could be the one to get the ball rolling for you and your community!  More and more business are willing and happy to learn what needs there are and how they can help.

Know of any great autism friendly events/businesses?  Leave a comment with your favorites!