How ABA therapy is helping children with autism

By Dr. Frank McGeorge

Kelly Buska admits her son's autism diagnosis was initially very scary. 

She didn't know a lot about the disorder. But now she says his daily behavior therapy is teaching him skills to lead a successful life.

A mask, Popsicle sticks and words are the simple tools teaching her son, Nuya, valuable lessons.

"Nuya wears a mask just for fun and then has to spell the word um that his therapist read from the popsicle stick," said Kelly. "It's just to target spelling, so some of the academic tasks, but also to stay focused and to be able to follow through with direction and sit appropriately at the table."

Nuya receives ABA, which stands for applied behavior analysis, said Anne Bordman, board certified behavior analyst with Centria Autism Services.

"ABA therapy is a behavior-based therapy. We break down a series of behaviors into smaller components so we teach to the individual’s needs," said Bordman.

Kelly Buska remembers how Nuya was as a toddler before he was diagnosed.

"He didn't talk, make eye contact, or you couldn't touch him. He wouldn't play with toys. He would spin door knobs hours on end," she said. "When he first came he had a lot of aggression. He had self-inaudible behavior. He was very low functioning on the autism spectrum."

The biggest worry was his self-harming behaviors.

"He would hit his head. He would flop to the ground and he would head bang the back of his head onto the carpet, any type of flooring," said Bordman.

Now, 4 and 1/2 years later, Nuya is changed.

"Now you look at him and you wouldn't be able to tell," his mother said. "Therapy is always important because it's like the child's medicine. Without it you will see an increase in a child's autism behaviors."

He spends his afternoons at Centria Autism Center in Dearborn.

"He goes to school around 7:30 in the morning, but then he comes here to the autism center at 1 p.m. and he doesn't get home until 5:30 p.m.," said his mother.

ABA therapy is a big commitment, but Kelly says it's worth it for her son.

"He can do subtraction, addition. He's so smart ... he does reading and spelling," she said. "It's really emotional just thinking, like, my child can speak, I didn’t think this would ever be possible let alone doing multiplication at 6 years old."

Nuya's behavior analyst gets emotional thinking about his progress.

"He's like my little buddy, 4 and a 1/2 years of 25 to 30 hours of ABA therapy per week, we've been through a lot together," said Bordman. "It takes everyone to be a part of his services."

Kelly's advice to make this therapy successful is that parents must implement therapy at home, and be involved in therapy planning. They also must be consistent, and:

"Love, tough love, gentle love, both of them count. So that's the key to success," she said. "Nuya won't have to have therapy all his life, just for now until we really shape his skills and keep him on track, and as he ages he'll be OK."

The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority partners with centers like Nuya's connecting families with a support coordinator to help them get the services they need.

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