Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today. – AutismSpeaks.org
When Lesley Pahl started Aim Star Learning just over two years ago, she never expected to feel so fulfilled in her work each day. After graduating college and looking for work in the physical therapy field, she stumbled across the practice of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). This type of therapy helps to improve social, communication, and learning strategies through positive reinforcement. When she graduated college, ABA was not well-known, but her work kept bringing her back to it. She’s always worked with children and loves working one-on-one with them because of their innate desire to learn – and saw that they responded more positively to the techniques of ABA.
While ABA sometimes still has a negative connotation due to its early beginnings as behavior modification and changing people, Lesley has seen how it has transformed into positively influencing better behaviors. For example, your child is crying because they want something, like a toy, and can’t communicate appropriately. To the child, every time they cry, they get the toy, reinforcing this learned behavior. ABA techniques will help you, the parent or caregiver, to teach the child a better way to communicate that they want the toy, through asking, or picking it up themselves – giving both you and the child a more positive experience.
In the Maple Valley, Washington area where Aim Star Learning is based, there is a huge demand for the one-on-one therapy services and care that Aim Star Learning provides to children with autism and their families. While Aim Star Learning tries to onboard families quickly and thoroughly, sometimes getting through the red tape of insurance companies can be difficult and time-consuming. For families that are wait-listed, Lesley tries to work with them to provide some services until they can get fully enrolled. For children, especially with developmental disabilities or autism, time is of the essence when talking about early intervention.
Aim Star Learning’s instructors and therapists can work with children that have developmental disabilities like Down’s Syndrome and ADHD, but primarily work with children on the autism spectrum because at present, that’s the only recognized disability that insurance will cover for Aim Star Learning’s programs.
After a family has contacted Aim Star Learning, Lesley’s team hits the ground running. They’ll start doing all the legwork to contact the insurance company and check their benefits so they can understand what therapies and how many hours are covered. Lesley’s goal is to make sure the family can easily move through the enrollment process and not have any surprises from their insurance company. They’ll work to review diagnostic paperwork, complete the intake forms, and do an assessment where they work with the families to see what their goals and values are. Once the assessment is filled out, it’s sent for input to families, teachers, and other caregivers that directly impact the child. All the information gets scored and everything from the family’s input and values gets taken into consideration when developing a personalized curriculum that is built for the child.
Aim Star Learning works with the families to build a solid foundation for their long-term goals. Through the entire process, families that work with Aim Star Learning meet with the therapists and instructors for training and on a weekly or monthly basis to go over where they’re seeing success, where they see improvements need to be made, and where they are in achieving their ultimate goals with their children. New assessments are made and the curriculum is updated every six months to keep the child on track in working through their behaviors, like potty training, decreasing tantrums, completing chores, decreasing disruptive behaviors in the classroom. At each assessment, the families, teachers, and Aim Star Learning work together to plan out the next six months and how it will impact the next year, or even five years.
Lesley understands that sometimes it can be frustrating for parents of Autistic children, so she encourages families to reach out when they start to feel like there are setbacks to their child’s learning. She gets to the core issue of the parents’ frustration and works with them to give them what they need, whether it’s improved communication with the school, a better way to communicate, and other resources to help with the problem. She helps them to understand that a child’s growth is not linear, and will have ebbs and flows. While there may be a regression now, they will see progress soon.
In working with the families, Lesley has found that working with the child’s school and teachers is not only enlightening, but beneficial to the child’s development, too. Aim Star Learning’s goal is to give the child the skills they need, and by working with all the adults in the child’s life to give them an immersive learning experience, the results can come quickly and easily. Lesley has built solid relationships with schools in the area, and teachers are more than willing to work with Aim Star Learning – going as far as to let the Aim Star Learning instructor sit in to observe the child in their school. Instituting a few changes in the child’s learning at Aim Star Learning or at home can easily be integrated into their school life. For example, if a child gets up and runs around the room, it may be because they need a break. So Aim Star Learning, the parents or caregivers, and teachers will all work with the child so they instead are asking for the break, and not causing a disruption in class. The child will get a break, and asking for one is far more ideal than them getting out of their seat and throwing a tantrum.
While it can sometimes be difficult to assimilate a child into Aim Star Learning, Lesley has found that kids are resilient. The first week or so may bring some protests and crying because they’re getting used to a new routine, but they learn quickly. Building a rapport with each child can take time and Lesley stresses the need for parents to be patient for the first few weeks – even though their child may not love the programs at first, it won’t take long until everyone starts seeing a positive improvement in the child’s behavior.
When children are in one of Aim Star Learning’s programs, the focus is really on each child as an individual. Lesley makes sure that, while enrolled, kids can be kids and to help develop their motor or communication skills, the lessons are play-based. To help develop this love of learning and work on their skills, teddy bears come to life, or instructors play in obstacle courses with the children. Motor skills like riding a bike, hiking, or roller skating are worked on so the child can bring that home and the family can do an activity together. These play-based activities help enrich each child by being social and relevant to the family.
Children that come to Aim Star Learning not only learn skills they need to help them develop, but they learn how to play, which helps to promote social skills. If they see their peers playing and interacting, a child with Autism may not be interested because they don’t know how to do what their peers are doing. For example, a child with Autism may not know how to play with PlayDoh. At Aim Star Learning, instructors and therapists work with the child on their fine motor skills to teach them how to roll, shape, or smash the PlayDoh. Lesley makes sure that learning is a positive experience and that children enjoy their time at Aim Star Learning.
Lesley also makes sure that the instructors and therapists are keeping up with the latest developments in education for children with Autism or other developmental disabilities through research articles and by encouraging them to not only maintain the basic continuing education that’s required by the state, but by pushing their education further. Each of her instructors have their own special interests, and she encourages them to pursue further education and coaching from experts in that field. Aim Star Learning also employs students who are seeking their own certifications. Lesley finds that while the instructors are working with those students, the students are able to teach the instructors, too.
Lesley attributes the success to the work that goes on not only behind the scenes, through the enrollment process, evaluations, and curriculum development, but through the rapport each instructor and therapist builds with each of the children enrolled in one of the programs and how they offer intensive, challenging courses that help guide each child to be successful, building life-long relationships.
Lesley and Aim Star Learning believe that with more understanding and knowledge of Autism from the general public, everyone will see that someone with Autism is just as capable as anyone else.