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For Asperger's kids, Tampa school works with behavioral health clinic

Bay Life Academy is a private school. Their partnership with Engage Behavioral Health began in September.
Bay Life Academy is a private school. Their partnership with Engage Behavioral Health began in September.
Published Feb. 8, 2013

SEFFNER

When a boy at Bay Life Academy in Seffner started acting out in class, the teachers didn't send him to detention. They gave him a Kindle. • The student has Asperger's syndrome. Kids with Asperger's often have trouble with social interaction. He'd act out in class because he would finish his work more quickly than the other students and was bored. Now, if he finishes his work early and behaves in class, he's allowed to read extra books on the Kindle. • It's Applied Behavior Analysis in action. Bay Life Academy recently partnered with Engage Behavioral Health to open a new clinic location at the school and offer this and Applied Verbal Behavior therapy, which teach communication skills, to some of the students at the school.

Engage is a Tampa-based company that provides these therapies to children in Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus, Pasco and Pinellas counties. They work with them in their other clinics in South Tampa and Citrus Park, at home or through partnerships with schools like Bay Life, a private school for children in grades K-8 with a range of special needs, including children on the autism spectrum or those with specific learning disabilities like dyslexia.

"He's bright, he's bored, he needs to be stimulated," Bay Life executive director of education Kristin Seltzer said about the student with Asperger's. "I don't want to make him a tutor for other students. I want him to be engaged."

The partnership between Engage and Bay Life began in September. Engage had been working with students at Sydney's School, an early-childhood education school in Tampa for children with autism and other disabilities.

Some of the Sydney students began attending Bay Life, and Seltzer went to Sydney to see the program in action. Engage and Bay Life developed a similar partnership. Therapists from Engage work with four of Bay Life's students during the day while they're in the classroom, in the lunchroom or at recess, and after school.

Angela Cain, 33, of Riverview began sending her 6-year-old son, Jayden Gray, to Bay Life this year for kindergarten. He is autistic and has been working with therapists from Engage five days a week since starting school.

Jayden has made incredible gains since September, Cain said. Before, he couldn't communicate with her. He couldn't ask for things he wanted, he couldn't tell her when he needed to go to the bathroom. He never made eye contact.

But since working with the therapists, "this burst of language just started happening," she said. "His eye contact has gotten better."

He now asks for things he wants, and requests to go to the bathroom. He eats better and has gained weight because he doesn't play with his food anymore. He can answer questions by pointing to flashcards.

"It's very important since he has limited language," she said.

Engage also trained Bay Life teachers on how to better handle children with behavioral issues while managing an entire class. The therapists spend time in the classrooms to help teachers apply the training on the spot. They also teach parents how to use the same techniques the teachers use in the classroom.

"If a child knows mom and dad are on the same page as the teacher, your chances for success really increase," Seltzer said. "You start to see some effective change. That's why the collaboration works so well and the teachers welcome it."

Jennifer Rava founded Engage with four therapists in 2008 while working on a master's degree in applied behavioral analysis at Florida State University. They now have 60 therapists.

Medicaid and some insurance plans will cover the costs of ABA therapies. Some families self-pay. Engage works with families on a case-by-case basis to try to help them.

"We don't ever want to turn someone away," Rava said.

It's estimated that 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder each year, according to a March 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's hard to keep up with the demand, and they have a waiting list for services, Rava said. Building the kinds of collaborations they've started at Bay Life takes patience.

"But we're all here for the children," Rava said. "It doesn't matter who is right or wrong, it's whatever's going to work best."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at ksheehan@tampabay.com.

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