Family Forced to Relocate To Get Child Necessary Therapy

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HARLINGEN – Experts say early diagnosis is crucial for children with autism. They added education is the primary form of treatment and the sooner it can start, the better.

For some parents the diagnosis doesn’t come right away. Once the diagnosis does come, finding the right education can be even more difficult.

The Peña family didn’t learn their oldest daughter, Isla, was autistic until she was 5 years old.

“It took time to diagnose her with autism because she didn’t present in the way you’d assume,” explained Isla’s mom, Lisa. “She was not socially withdrawn. In fact, she was really outgoing and friendly and full of joy.”

Science shows the best form of education and treatment for people with autism is something called Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA.

ABA helps autistic children foster basic life skills like looking, listening and imitating. Megan Gianotti, a board certified behavioral analyst, said learning these skills can improve their quality of life.

“Teaching methods based on the science of applied behavioral analysis have proven to be very effective ways to teach people with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities,” she explained.

When Isla was diagnosed, there were very limited ABA resources in the Rio Grande Valley. That left the Peña’s with the difficult decision to pack up their family and move to Corpus Christi where they had heard about a program called the Shape of Behavior.

The Shape of Behavior is a dedicated ABA health center. They design therapy programs personalized to each child’s needs.

“You can have six children in a clinic and none of the programs look the same,” Gianotti said.

The programs are based on developmental assessments, teaching foundation skills and social interactions. Gianotti said learning these skills helps kids with autism learn in a traditional educational classroom.

Lisa said the program changed her daughter's life.

“She has improved so much as far as her interaction and communication with her friends, kids her age and her family,” she said.

The Peña’s  said they’re thankful for what the Corpus Christi program brought their daughter, but they wanted to move back home to Harlingen.

“The Shape of Behavior told us if we could find five families that were interested, they would consider a location in Harlingen,” explained Lisa.

Today, people can find two Shape of Behavior locations serving Valley families in Harlingen and McAllen.

Isla’s grown with the program for the last two and a half years, according to her mom. She said it’s now time for the almost 9-year-old girl to take the next step.

“We want to transition her to public school which has always been the goal,” said Lisa. “The Shape of Behavior has a program where they send a therapist with her to school for six months just to help her transition… Unfortunately, the school districts in the Valley don’t allow that due to legalities,” she said.

Lisa said she hopes school districts can partner with The Shape of Behavior to help more children make an easier transition.

In Texas, education for kids with disabilities doesn’t look the same in every public school setting. Language and practices of how the child will be educated can differ from district to district.

Some districts still use a method called “mainstreaming” where special education students can earn a right to be in a regular classroom with their peers. At times, these children receive no additional support.

Another method of teaching is referred to as “inclusion.” Inclusion involves bringing special education services to a child in a traditional classroom. Inclusion method tailors the education to that child’s special needs while they benefit from a classroom setting.

If you’re interested in learning more about ABA or finding a therapist near you, the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board has a list of resources.


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