If you broke your leg and needed an orthopedic specialist, would you settle for an appointment with a heart surgeon? A revered specialist in his/her own right, a heart surgeon would likely not provide the proper diagnosis or treatment for your leg to heal properly.
To get the best care possible, an assessment and treatment from the specialist with the right training and experience are required. The same principle can be applied to treating any medical condition, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
About 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That equates to about 1.25 million children in the United States. Yet only a fraction of those children receive proper care.
One of the most common and effective treatments for autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. With just under 30,000 Board Certified Behavior Analysts in the United States, there is a nationwide shortage of these specialists. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there is also a national shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists, and only 20 percent of children with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders receive care from a specialized mental health care provider.
In fact, ratios of child and adolescent psychiatrists range by state from 1 to 60 per 100,000 children, with a median of 11 child and adolescent psychiatrists per 100,000 children.
Studies have shown that an overwhelming number of families experience long waitlists for diagnostic, behavioral health, and therapeutic services for autism. In a July 2019 study, a team of pediatricians and biomedical data scientists at Stanford University who mapped the locations of about 28,000 different autism providers in the United States found that services for autism could be identified in only 16 percent of U.S. counties.
Researchers found that specialized autism services, such as diagnostic, behavioral treatment and ABA therapy, also is unevenly distributed throughout the country, with rural areas reporting less access to care and greater travel distances than urban areas.
As a result of the lack of specialized care and geographic barriers, children with autism who exhibit aggression, self-injury, and tantrums often end up in the wrong care setting for their unique needs, such as psychiatric hospitals designed to treat neurotypical children. In fact, 11 percent of children with ASD are admitted to a psychiatric hospital unit before adulthood.
A 2012 study found that ASD children are admitted to psychiatric hospitals at a rate 6.6 times higher than neurotypical children, incur longer hospital stays—by an average of 12 days longer—than their neurotypical peers and are often readmitted within one year. While there are specialized psychiatric hospitals that exclusively serve children with ASD or Intellectual Disability (ID), only nine such facilities exist in the United States.
Springbrook Autism Behavioral Health in Greenville, South Carolina, recently launched a first-of-its-kind program to address this national shortage of services, long waitlists, and demand for specialized care. For 37 years, the program has been using evidence-based treatments and therapies to create a solid foundation for long-term wellbeing and success during and beyond its long-term residential treatment program. Outcomes have surpassed national averages.
Now, Springbrook is leveraging the principles and success of this proven model for residential behavioral treatment with children and adolescents with autism in a groundbreaking, accelerated program called Acute Autism Stabilization & Assessment Program.
Unlike the other specialized hospital psychiatry units that serve children with ASD and ID, in addition to stabilization, the program provides full assessments from many autism specialists who develop detailed treatment and behavioral plans and additional therapy interventions on an accelerated timeline. The average length of stay at other hospital psychiatry units is about six weeks, while Springbrook’s program shortens that stay to about four weeks.
Also unique to the program is the setting: children in the short-term program are treated in a facility that is designed specifically for their unique needs, with access to the same specially trained staff as the residential treatment facility. Children in the acute program also have access to extensive amenities, including classrooms designed for children with autism, a cafeteria, gymnasium, outdoor fields, and recreational spaces, sensory room, swimming pool, and on-site therapy dogs.
A keystone of the Acute Autism Stabilization & Assessment Program includes daily ABA therapy provided by top BCBAs, including William Killion, PhD; comprehensive assessments and treatment from multiple disciplines; clinical, special education, child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychiatric nurses specializing in autism, and occupational, recreational and speech therapies; dietary and medical interventions; evidence-based programming; weekly treatment teams and individualized behavior and treatment plans.
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At the end of this short-term program, each family receives a detailed, personalized manual, or blueprint, to guide the family to continue the success and provide a seamless transition to long-term treatment provided in schools, outpatient or group living settings. Families also receive a copy of the widely adapted Functional Independent Skills Handbook, authored by Dr. Killion and, for each child in the program, specially notated with specific strategies recommended for them.
Springbrook’s mission is to use its successful evidence-based strategies in accelerated autism program to stabilize maladaptive behaviors that interfere with success at home and school. The goal is to provide detailed plans from many autism experts to guide families and outpatient providers to increase the chances for long term success in and prevent repeated visits to care facilities that cannot address their unique needs.
This article was featured in Issue 98 – Fresh ASD Guidance For A New Year