New academy for autism opening in Bradenton

eearl@bradenton.comJuly 9, 2013 

MANATEE -- It is one thing to struggle in school socially, but some students need special attention and tutoring simply to learn how to engage in conversation, ask for a drink or even wash their hands.

The Applied Behavior Analysis Network understands some students with special needs require a tailored learning experience, especially those with autism. That is why the organization, geared toward learning therapies for children with autism, is opening a new day school program in Bradenton.

The Applied Behavior Analysis Academy is for students ages 3 through 21. Students will be grouped by age, and each will have an individualized program, working on a level specific to their needs.

The academy will have four classrooms, an occupational therapy room for sensory needs, and a room for one-on-one therapy.

They plan to move into the current Easter Seals Lily Academy on Braden Avenue, and work closely with Easter Seals, which focuses on child development.

Since April 2008, the network has been serving autistic students through private one-on-one in-home behavioral therapy.

The therapy focuses on communication, social skills, having conversations, hygiene, getting dressed and

nutrition, all tasks children with autism tend to struggle with, said Shelly Swift, executive director of the Applied Behavior Analysis Network.

"ABA therapy is based on behavior and how people learn and acquire new behaviors," Swift said. "When we are infants and children we have reflexes, and as we learn and grow other behaviors are learned."

Swift said she is opening the academy Aug. 19 to offer clients the option of more hours of therapy per week.

Swift said two to four hours a week of therapy is not enough for most children. "They need consistency and repetition. A 30-hour week will result in much more gains and progress," Swift said.

The Applied Behavior Analysis Network already offers academic tutoring because many of its students are behind. Skills such as reading, spelling and handwriting will continue to be combined with therapy at the academy, Swift said.

Dan Knittel, director of Positive Behavior Interventions Inc. in Lakewood Ranch, said children with autism can need as much as 40 hours of therapy per week.

"The challenges are not related to children with autism," Knittel said. "Not a lot of people understand the science of ABA, and many people are not aware that there is a science that exists that is proven to help children with autism."

Private therapy costs between $35 and $75 an hour, depending on insurance coverage and the therapist's credentials.

Knittel said that it can add up to between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.

Swift said she does not want parents to sacrifice their retirement money to provide their child a great education.

The Applied Behavior Analysis Academy will accept McKay scholarships, which is Florida Department of Education funding parents can apply to for private school tuition. The academy's nonprofit status is still pending, and fundraising events will be scheduled to fund grants.

Swift said the goal is to help students mainstream when the time is appropriate. Families will work with the Applied Behavior Analysis Network and therapists to put together a transition plan.

"Many of the kids we work with have a hard time with change," Swift said. "We are going to make the transition social. We will visit the school, take pictures and meet the teacher."

The academy has four students, ages 6 and 7, already enrolled. It can take up to 25 students.

Their students have made the transition into private schools, charter schools, public schools or do home schooling, depending on the child, said Swift. The organization and academy also plan to prepare older clients for adulthood.

Anne Katz, clinical director at the Applied Behavior Analysis Network, will oversee the transitions.

"We tend to work on life and independent skills when the client is older," Swift said. "We work on all areas of functioning to prepare them for adulthood as much as possible. Some kids transition into Easter Seals if appropriate, and there are a lot of adult community agencies that they can transition into."

The deadline for enrollment is Aug. 2, which is also the McKay Scholarship deadline.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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