Autism program is a life-changer
Phil Menard and his colleagues have one goal when it comes to treating young children on the autism spectrum: “We want to turn parents into full-time therapists.”
Menard is a speech-language pathologist who directs the STEPS Autism Treatment Program at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
The children in STEPS have autism spectrum disorder, a neurodevelopmental condition that includes Asperger’s syndrome and other disorders that delay or reverse development. It is often characterized by a child’s difficulty to communicate and interact with others and repetitive behaviors or interests.
STEPS — which stands for Support, Teach, Engage, Promote, Succeed — began in 2014 with only three patients, thanks to a pilot grant from U-M Dance Marathon. Today, there are eight concurrent sessions across two locations, allowing 24 children between the ages of 2 and 6 to take part at any time.
Families meet three days a week for two-hour sessions with a team of occupational therapists, speech pathologists and other specialists to improve a child’s language, social and cognitive skills.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Headlines is taking a closer look at STEPS and how it helps families better manage a disorder that affects about two percent of children in the U.S.
A family affair
At every session, specialists provide both one-on-one therapy and group activities for the children.
In order to learn proper therapy techniques, parents play a direct role in the one-on-one sessions and watch and listen on monitors from another room during group time. But to Menard, it’s what happens between each session that is most important in the development of a child.
“Children are more likely to respond successfully if parents buy in and help them improve their skills 24/7,” Menard said. “So we make sure parents are fully involved in the process. This isn’t a place you come to play on your smartphone while your kids get therapy.”
Parents are also assigned homework, such as practicing a certain technique with their son or daughter each night.
“We find out what works and doesn’t work for each child so that we can tailor treatment to an individual family’s needs,” Menard said.
For many families, the individualized care has worked wonders.
Carrie Larscheid said her son Finnegan was “totally nonverbal” at age 2½ when the family enrolled in the program.
Finnegan worked regularly with therapists, interacted with children his own age and the family was advised to remove all screens from the home — such as tablets and smartphones — as they served as distractions.
“Not only were the therapists teaching the kids, they were teaching us too,” Larscheid said. “Finnegan has responded so well that he is now in a mainstream school where they don’t even know he’s on the autism spectrum.”
Stephanie Holloway saw similar results with her son, Alex.
“STEPS has been life-changing,” said Holloway. Her son had behavioral aggression issues when he began the program, including hitting and screaming, but “within three weeks, therapists were able to target the aggression.” Therapists found that Alex was aggressive because he knew his parents would respond negatively — and a predictable response is comforting to a child on the autism spectrum.
“Once we stopped responding to his aggression, it immediately stopped,” Holloway said. “We went from not being able to go to the grocery store with our son to traveling internationally as a family. It’s an amazing feeling.”
For Menard, such success stories fuel him to keep the program going — and growing. STEPS doubled its patient capacity this past January.
Menard gives credit to both the families involved and his colleagues.
“We tell parents, ‘it’s going to be hard work, but it’s going to be worth it,’” Menard said. “And if they commit to working hard, there is a special team here that will work just as hard for them and their child.”