A center that provides individualized therapy to young children with autism will open in Bangor on Monday.
Heartleaf ABA will teach children ages 2-6 a variety of skills to prepare them to function and succeed in everyday settings from school to grocery stores, according to National Clinical Director Katie Arnold. Those include motor skills, social skills, eating, communication and using the bathroom.
The center on Griffin Road is Heartleaf’s first brick-and-mortar location after the organization started out exclusively offering home visits.
It fills a need for services for children with autism in the Bangor area, as the number of children with autism Maine and nationwide has grown exponentially in recent decades. The center serves those children at the age when research has shown the intervention can have the greatest impact. There’s also a need for services for children living in Maine’s rural areas, according to a top Maine advocate for children and adults with autism.
The Heartleaf ABA center uses Applied Behavior Analysis to teach children with autism these skills and behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis is a widely recognized type of one-on-one therapy for children with autism that’s based on the science of learning and behavior. The goal is to encourage and teach certain behaviors and skills while discouraging undesirable behaviors.
“ABA breaks skills down into small, bite-sized pieces so we can teach a skill at the learner’s level,” Arnold said. “If we see two children come in with similar repetitive behavior, we’ll do an assessment and figure out why they engage in that behavior and how we can treat it. Even though behaviors or skill deficits might look similar, it’s the treatment plan that is individualized.”
Cathy Dionne, the executive director of the Autism Society of Maine, said she’s pleased Heartleaf specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis and targets young children with autism, as beginning therapy young makes it more successful.
“The whole goal of early intervention is to get a child as close to the development of their age group as we can and get them as independent as we can, and you need to start that process earlier,” Dionne said. “Each child with autism is going to be different, so you need to base the service on what their needs are and encourage where they have great abilities.”
When a child enters the center, Heartleaf specialists will assess them to determine what skills they have and where they need help, then build a unique plan for that child, Arnold said. The center will also collaborate with other therapists who may be working with a child, such as an occupational or speech therapist.
“Young children with autism are so capable of learning,” Arnold said. “It might just be that the way they were learning wasn’t working for them. We love to see those kids come in and start to make progress.”
The center can serve up to 30 children at once, and about 50-60 children in total, said Brian Steinburg, vice president of operations. Children may typically come into the center three days each week for a total of 24 hours, but those who need more intensive therapy may go in five days a week for 30 hours total.
Steinburg said children with autism usually graduate from the center after two or three years.
The center accepts health insurance, MaineCare and private pay, Arnold said.
Though Maine has about 300 services that offer Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, Dionne said she wishes the state had more centers like Heartleaf ABA, especially in rural areas. She said that need will only increase as autism becomes more prevalent.
“Heartleaf will have a big impact on the Bangor community because it’s needed,” Dionne said.
When Dionne’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 1995, one in 10,000 children in the U.S. were diagnosed with autism. Now the prevalence rate is one in 44.
More than 10,000 people in Maine, and more than 7 million nationwide, are on the autism spectrum, Dionne said.
“Bangor is an underserved market for this type of therapy,” Steinburg said. “We want to make sure everyone has equal access and that’s what this center is about. It’s not fair to ask a family to drive an hour or more to get services they need.”
Though Applied Behavior Analysis can be very effective, Steinburg said it requires hard work from the child’s family.
Steinberg’s son underwent Applied Behavior Analysis therapy from ages 2-5 after he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 18 months old. He’ll begin his freshman year of college in the fall.
“My wife and I spent many hours working on the program our ABA therapist made for our son. It was frustrating, difficult and challenging, but it was worth it,” Steinburg said. “We look back on those years as the hardest but the best years of our lives. Without it, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”