“The intervention involves teaching a whole new set of skills,” said Dr. Louis P. Hagopian, a psychologist and research scientist at Kennedy Krieger. “Part of it is teaching the child, but the other part is teaching the parent what to do.”
The institute’s approach is based on the principles of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, which is the science of human behavior. The parental training is “performance-based,” meaning parents have to master the techniques, with 90 percent accuracy, before they can bring their children home.
“They don’t fix him there,” said Bobbie Gallagher of Brick, a behavior consultant for New Horizons in Autism, a Neptune-based agency, who is overseeing the home therapy Alex receives almost every day. Gallagher’s son Austin, 18, spent 4 months at Kennedy Krieger.
“It’s not like he had a tumor removed, and now he’s all better,” she said. “They give you a plan to work on.”
Alex’s plan divides his entire day, at home and at school, into alternating blocks of time, during which he is either expected to follow instructions or allowed to do something he enjoys, such as listening to his MP3 player or watching videos.
Because of Alex’s language limitations, his parents, teachers and therapists wear color-coded laminated cards around their necks to indicate which set of rules are in effect: green for “Alex’s way,” red for “our way.” The ABA approach also uses tangible rewards to keep children motivated. Alex’s include MP3 time, Gummi bears and chocolate-covered pretzels.
His mother has to record virtually everything he does during the day in a binder that Gallagher and his therapists use to spot problems and track his progress.
“It’s difficult, still, because this is what I have to do every day of my life, but I definitely have more control over him,” said Mennicucci, 34, who no longer has to pad herself like a football player when she is around her son."
ABA has been confirmed repeatedly for decades as the most evidence based effective intervention for autism in studies and reviews by credible health and education organizations from the US Surgeon General to state agencies in New York, California and Maine to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Still ABA is criticized by persons and organizations who are for the most part ill informed about ABA and often have an ideological or self interest reason motivating their criticisms. The stories of people like Alex and his parents are important to show the real life help that ABA can provide to children with autism and other serious intellectual and behavioral disabilities.