No services available. That’s what families who needed applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, treatment for their children with autism were told in 2009. Fishers or Indianapolis were the closest options.
That didn’t cut it for Belinda Hughes. Her middle son, Gabe, is autistic.
“My pediatrician told me that ABA was the recommended treatment for my son; however, there were no ABA services in our area. At that moment, it became my goal to get them,” she says.
ABA treatment teaches social and communications skills, which don’t come easily to children on the autism spectrum.
Hughes, an at-home mom and former legal clerk, went back to school. She earned an MA from Ball State in ’09 and passed the exam to become a board certified behavior analyst. Today she is an instructor in the Department of Special Education and the coordinator of the ABA practicum program. Several years earlier, she’d become acquainted with David McIntosh, the David and Joanna Meeks distinguished professor of special education at Ball State.
It was McIntosh who sent her to Muncie’s Hillcroft Services to seek support for a local ABA clinic. The project was a good fit with Hillcroft’s mission to provide support services to individuals with disabilities and their families.
Hillcroft hired Tom Donovan as administrator. Donovan found a building at 920 West Main Street, Muncie, and now supervises the staffing and administrative functions of the clinic. Ball State provides the professional oversight. The clinic is a practicum site for Ball State students studying for the master of arts in applied behavior analysis with an emphasis in autism. Many students come to the clinic to receive experience in various capacities working with individuals diagnosed with autism.
Children on the autism spectrum range from mildly to severely affected. The neurological disability causes problems with communication and social skills for one of every 100 children nationwide. Applied behavioral analysis treatment gets at the heart of those issues, focusing strategically on building skills to help the children function at their highest possible level. It’s difficult—and sometimes impossible—to provide the intensive treatment in a traditional school setting.
Currently seven pupils, each with an individualized educational program, are enrolled full time at the Hillcroft ABA Clinic. They study traditional subjects such as math and science geared toward their abilities. Therapists work with the clients individually and in groups to increase verbal, social, and life skills and reduce inappropriate behaviors. Fifteen pupils use the clinic on a part-time basis, attending either social group times or receiving in-home therapy.
Looking Forward to School
Gage Cummings is a full-time pupil. He’s a busy 8-year-old whose mother, Gina, was driving 90 miles each day from her home in Redkey to Indianapolis and back to get ABA treatment. She had tried other clinics and various school settings, and couldn’t be happier now with his Hillcroft school and its Ball State partners.
“Hillcroft has been the best resource so far. The staff is very good about keeping me up-to-date with Gage’s progress and telling me what to work on at home,” she says.
Gage’s social skills have improved, Gina says, to the point where he will initiate conversations with strangers, something autistic children generally find difficult. “He is communicating much better and has more language skills to use on a daily basis,” she says.
School is something Gage looks forward to now. He understands that weekend routines are different than school day routines, but he gets antsy over holiday breaks, asking, “School today?” over and over.
“I love his teachers,” Gina says. “They are awesome with him. He has a very specific way of doing things and responding to things, and they pick up on his cues and really work with him.”
The Program’s Roots
Jerome Ulman, a special education professor emeritus, recounts how Ball State laid the groundwork for the clinic.
“Ball State began offering an online master's degree program with an emphasis in autism, a primary goal of which is to prepare students to become board certified behavior analysts (BCBA). Initially, we were searching for ways to establish a treatment center for children with autism. Then, through Belinda's leadership in establishing and building a parent group in the area—Interlock: East Central Indiana Autism of America Chapter—and her working with Dr. David McIntosh to develop a summer camp for children with autism at Hillcroft's Camp Isanogel, the pieces started to come together.
“Then, in 2007, with Belinda's initiative, the parent group began to collaborate with the Department of Special Education to create a summer training program to provide the parents of children with autism with behavior-management skills to increase their effectiveness in helping their children and improving their home life. I had the pleasure of serving as their instructor. Here I cannot resist the opportunity to relate that one of my students in the parent class was Belinda.”
Ball State’s Department of Special Education received the Community Partnership Award from Hillcroft Services for providing support in the opening of the clinic.
Hughes and others in the special education department see no time to rest on such successes. Growth—and meeting the needs of more families—is always on their minds.
“We will continue to find need areas in our community and develop plans to fill those needs,” Hughes says. “As our clients begin to grow and age out of this program, we look ahead at what their future needs are going to be and how we can best provide for those needs.”