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Parents Plead Their Case for ABA Program

Funds for ABA Not in Budget

Fourteen months ago, Stefanie Lombardo and her husband were told their son Sean was classically autistic. They were told Sean might never talk, likely had mild mental retardation and would need intensive therapy.

After doing some research, the Lombardos decided applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, was right for Sean. And in May, a vacancy in the Fairfax County Public Schools pilot ABA program allowed Sean to begin the program.

During the budget public hearing Jan. 29, Lombardo, a Centreville resident, said that seven months into Sean’s participation in the ABA program, tests show he is demonstrating developmental progress, exhibiting growth in language acquisition and expression and that his IQ rating is low, but above the range of children with mental retardation.

"He is beating the averages because he is an amazing child, and he has been placed in the most appropriate educational program for his needs," Lombardo said. "Growth such as Sean's deserves the chance to continue and flourish."

In the fiscal year 2003 budget adopted by the School Board last week, there is no money allocated to continue the ABA pilot program, which was started in 1998.

Instead, the Department of Educational Accountability, Office of Program Evaluation recommended in its December evaluation report to incorporate the strengths of existing programs and "create an efficient, cost-effective and comprehensive program" for preschool children with autism. The report concluded there were no significant differences in the progress of children who were in the school system's three school-based programs — ABA, preschool reduced-ratio and preschool class-based, formerly known as the noncategorical program.

The report prompted a number of parents to speak at the public hearing to urge the School Board not to tinker with the ABA program.

<mh>Learning Experience

<bt>"I think some parents fear what modifications will be made," said Patricia Addison, director of the Office of Special Education. "There are strengths in all the programs. The concern is there may be changes made in the ABA program and some parents believe it needs to be implemented as it is."

Of the school system's three school-based programs, ABA is the only one that provides one-on-one attention for the students. The class includes five students, a teacher and one teacher's aide for each child. The children learn new skills, in the areas of communication, social interaction, behavior and cognition, through a series of drills and rewards. The pilot was limited to 10 students and the beginning ages were 2 years to 3 years and 11 months old. The pilot is offered at two schools: Cherry Run Elementary in Burke and Vienna Elementary in Vienna.

"The children receive instruction up to 30 hours per week, six hours a day, Monday through Friday, 50 weeks per year," said Rosy McGuiness, program specialist for the students with autism. "Initially, ABA was only done in the home. We've learned that having the opportunity to be in school has its benefits."

A reduced-ratio preschool class also has five students, but has three instructors including the teacher. Again, the program uses structured lessons based on repeated drills and rewards. The preschool class-based program is geared toward students that have multiple disabilities. In each case, the lessons are based on the individual child's needs as determined by an evaluation team.

The school system also learned through the pilot program that the students with autism could make it through a longer school day. Initially, the reduced-ratio and school-based preschool programs were half-day programs. Addison said some of the classes now have six-hour days.

<mh>Making Progress

<bt>McGuiness said the purpose of the pilot was to start teaching the children at a young age. Evan, 5, one of the original students to begin the pilot program, came to Cherry Run Elementary School unable to speak, wouldn't follow instructions and would only play by himself.

Last week, Evan was forming sentences with cards that had a word on each and was talking with his aide Felicia Smith.

Working with Evan, Smith learned he had an interest in shapes and letters and used that interest to teach him words. His reward for doing well is playing with Playdoh creating figures such as Baby Bop from Barney. Children select their reward before beginning drills to give them something to work toward,

The ABA program at Cherry Run has a cubicle for each student where the lessons are teacher-oriented. The center of the room is where the children can play in between lessons.

<mh>Different Approach

<bt>In contrast, the reduced-ratio classroom at Kings Park in Springfield has open workstations for the children. The room is visual, with little pictures providing step-by-step instructions for the children for everything from hanging up their coats to washing their hands. In addition, each child has a schedule of tasks, also in picture form, that they follow each day.

The lessons, while also taught in a repetitive drill form, have the child initiating most of the work with the teacher supervising.

Garrett, 3, sits at his workstation and grabs the items off the shelf to his left one by one. The first requires him to place beads in cones, another has him match cut outs of things such as a bus or rabbit on a piece of paper. He also places hands, feet and pants on a cut out doll, rolls cars along homemade bridges and puts various shapes into the correct holes cut out of a box. The skills are designed to teach him to finish tasks and to use items properly, but also serve as therapy. By completing the tasks, he is strengthening his muscles, learning to recognize his classmates and distinguish shapes. After completing a number of drills correctly, Garrett gets to select his reward, which last week was a plastic jar he got to place plastic cookies into.

<mh>Lack of Funding

<bt>"The one-to-one feature of the ABA program parents appreciate and want to have it continue, but it does lead to a difference in cost," Addison said.

In the FY 2002 approved budget, the ABA program cost $341,247 to provide services in two schools. The noncategorical program cost $6 million and covered 515 services in 55 sites. The preschool special education program cost $19 million for 1,828 services in 34 sites and the autism program cost $10 million for 931 services in 48 sites.

The FY 2003 budget increases the funding, the number of services and the number of sites for each program except ABA whose pilot program ends this year.

"School Board members have stated to me that they believe in the program and were amazed at the progress they saw in children when they made visits to the pilot project sites and compared that to videos of what the children were doing before they started the preschool program. But they won't vote to continue the program," said Teresa Champion, of Springfield and the parent of a child with autism, at the hearing. "Using ABA to teach children with autism the skills they need to function in our world, produces children that need less intensive special education services throughout the rest of their school years. Having a student that can function in a special education classroom with reduced special education services saves money. ABA is your only hope of achieving this in the autism population. Pay now or pay more later to warehouse students until they are 21."