The Early Autism Project (EAP), a sponsor for our 2014 Lowcountry Autism Forum, has branches in South Carolina and Georgia, with a local Charleston clinic too. The organization offers behavioral treatment and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for individuals with autism aged 20 months – 21 years. This week, LAC talked to Ann Eldridge, EAP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, to learn more about ABA and the work of the EAP.

LAC: How did you get interested in working in the autism education field?

Ann Eldridge (AE): I started my work in this field as a teacher in the 1980’s. In the early 1990’s, I started working in an integrated preschool classroom. We ran a half-day program, and three children with a diagnosis of autism were placed in my class … this was almost unheard-of at the time!

Their parents had tirelessly looked for solutions to figure out what was the cause of their language delay. And while all of those children made improvement [at school], their parents were constantly searching for a way to meet their needs. Two of those parents connected with families who had been receiving in-home ABA Therapy, and they began studying this type of treatment option.

Together, they worked to secure a doctor who would come to Sumter, SC and provide in-home ABA services. Since I was their preschool teacher, they included me in their training, and I was able to assist. (Later on, we provided these services through our school system.)

It was intoxicating for me, having worked with these children prior to the ABA. I know how difficult it was for me to teach them before I learned to teach them properly… I had not had the training that would help me teach them to learn. I wanted to serve those children and other children, and ABA gave me a way to do that.

Angie Keith (EAP’s Senior Vice President of Operations) was a kindergarten teacher at the school, and she was one of the first teachers willing to have an integrated classroom. We began working to set up ABA programs that included integration into general ed placements.

LAC: How did the EAP get started?

AE: Through this time, I’d also begun working with Susan Butler (EAP’s Senior Vice President of Business Development), who had business experience. All of us wanted to be advocates, so we joined forces. Susan and I started EAP in South Carolina, and Angie has worked alongside us. We were solely focused on children in South Carolina at the time, but then we moved beyond those borders.

From very beginning, we served children in home and in school, but now we provide services in clinic as well. We have five clinic locations in South Carolina: Mt. Pleasant, Sumter, Greenville, Rock Hill, and our flagship location in Columbia.

We’ve been fortunate to work closely with parents who were true advocates for their children, and they paved the way for insurance funding and a Medicaid Waiver program in South Carolina. Now we have parents working for insurance reform and funding in other states, like Louisiana and Georgia. Our goal is to provide the highest-quality treatment for children with autism and support for their families, and help them to have funding in their state.

For example, one large group of families we work with are military families. We noticed that, when they’d be transferred to another location, the transition time would be difficult for individuals with autism, as they’re often very sensitive to change. We worked with other providers to make the transition, but in some cases, families wanted us to continue providing those [ABA] services, so we did. We would travel to the family, and then hire staff in their area to work with them.

We want to offer that to any family. So that takes having a training program in place that is second to none, to help us offer portability. There is a standard of training in our field, and many insurance companies require board-certification at some level for a clinician to bill for ABA services. So there is a criteria to meet, and certification is important. Wherever families are, we want to provide quality services for them.

LAC: Tell us about your experience with ABA therapy – how have you seen it support individuals with autism and help them improve their quality of life?

AE: Through a highly developed and supervised ABA treatment program, children at all points on the autism spectrum can meet their potential. They can be integrated into the most natural home and community situations. With that in mind, we develop a program to help them develop appropriate play skills, train communications with siblings and peers, and so on.

At school, we’re looking for the least restrictive, most natural environment for each student. At home, we are looking at what the family does: where do they go? What do they enjoy? Wherever that family goes is the natural setting for that child where we want to see them fully integrated. We do that by training functional language and social skills. Our clinical staff help the family members to enjoy going out and engaging in their communities. Families want to be in the community; they don’t want to stay at home because it’s difficult to take a child out to Target or out to dinner. So, we develop a plan for reaching those goals as quickly as possible.

LAC: Other than individual ABA services, the EAP offers a workshop series, and the monthly Lowcountry Autism Support Group as well. Are there other events families should know about?

AE: We have the York Parent Support Group in Rock Hill; the next meeting is Thursday, August 28. Our goal is to provide support groups in all our clinical support locations. Additionally, we provide training and supervision for school districts in South Carolina, and we’re looking to expand those services. Finally, we’re offering Social Skills camps in Charleston, Rock Hill, and Florida this summer. Looking to the future, EAP wants to provide support services for families, especially siblings.

LAC: If you could offer words of wisdom to local autism families, what would they be?

AE: For every child who has a diagnosis of autism, there is help for them through an ABA program. We know that ABA programs are effective for all children; we have seen that all children can benefit from language development and social development. Across the board, ABA programs can improve the quality of life for children with autism and their families, so that they can be truly integrated into the community. So parents, seek out quality ABA treatment services. There are more and more quality support services for families, and we are excited to be a part of that!

Visit the Early Autism Project website and Facebook page to learn more.

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