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One Mom's Fight for Autism Education

Mom and autistic son on computer
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Chris Crisman

Autism impairs kids' emotional, social and communication abilities, making it hard for them to learn. While Joanne expected to find educational options addressing these specific challenges, she instead discovered groups that met for only a few hours a week or left the kids with glorified babysitters.

A year into her research, in early 1993, Joanne came across an article about two autistic kids who had blossomed at UCLA through a rigorous therapeutic approach called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Joanne called the head of the program in California and heard the good news: Instructors were being trained to bring individual ABA programs into people's homes. The bad news? The training wasn't yet available in Pennsylvania. But the more she read about ABA, the more determined she became to have AJ try the intensive therapy, in which an instructor develops a plan for a child and spends hours working one-on-one. After isolating a specific goal—mastering the alphabet, taking a shower—the teacher breaks it down into tiny steps. Every little achievement is rewarded, no matter how small it seems. ABA is slow, painstaking work that requires long hours, infinite patience and dedicated, well-trained tutors.

Then Joanne got a lucky break: A satellite program was about to launch an hour from her home at Bancroft, a nonprofit that offers support for children and adults with developmental disabilities. She contacted psychology departments at local colleges and worked with program heads to recruit students to train at her home. The colleges were eager to cooperate, since it meant that students could learn the groundbreaking technique and gain hands-on experience. Joanne found a rotating group of students who came over to work with AJ six hours a day.