HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Autism is part of life for Petal mom Chelsea McKinley.
"I have three boys that are on the autism spectrum," McKinley said. "Twins that are 10 and a 9-year-old. We tried everything, and as any parent with autism knows, in Mississippi, there's just not a whole lot of resources."
The University of Southern Mississippi is changing that.
This May, USM graduates its first students with master's degrees in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. It focuses on systematic interventions, like positive reinforcement, to improve learning and bring about positive and meaningful changes in behavior.
"Thankfully we were introduced to the ABA program through USM, and it has completely changed our lives," McKinley said. "There's not enough words to say how great it is, but if I could choose one, it's hope. We finally got some hope. The first thing they practiced in ABA was a positive reinforcement and encouragement with self control, and redirecting their behaviors. I think we all have some degree of anxiety, and, know you, tap your foot or whatever subconsciously. But theirs is so much more pronounced that it's a real problem. Socially, it puts up a wall between them and other people, and so that was beginning of building their confidence, trusting their therapists that they were working with. Then, it just exploded. It took off. their grades have gone through the roof. Their language has gone through the roof. It's been incredible. It has given my boys the chance at a future, which is more than any parent could ask for, so I can't say enough about it."
ABA therapy is "widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for autism," according to non-profit Autism Speaks, but there are only 33 licensed behavior analysts in our state to work with the estimated 11,000 children living in Mississippi with autism.
"33 for 11,000," said James Moore, Director of Training for USM's ABA Program. "We could produce a full complement of graduates every year for 100 years and not even touch the need that's there."
But Moore said it is amazing and emotional to already see the program's impact on children like McKinley's.
"Of course it makes you feel awesome," he said. "The (Individualized Education Program) meeting we attended with her last was tears all the way around the table, including the school. The schools have embraced this to their credit. Most schools still fight. Her school district has been awesome."
For Katie Bishop and Breanna Newborne, who are behavior analysts in training graduating in May, working with McKinley's boys and seeing their success is more than practice for a future career.
"One of Chelsea's sons, I was his main therapist," Bishop said. "He went from not a whole lot of social communication to being able to be placed in an inclusive classroom for parts of the day, so that's been amazing me. I just, I'm overjoyed."
Newborne said, "I had one of her other sons, and he's never been able to stay in school over a month. We've been able to keep him in school this whole school year, and we've been able to reduce one of his (Individualized Education Program) goals by 75 percent. The original goal was just 20 percent, and we reached that goal up to 75 percent. It's amazing."
McKinley agrees the progress is amazing.
"I'm normally in tears every time I have to talk about this because it's so amazing," she said. "It's incredible. What's more incredible is to see family members that we haven't seen in awhile because of having to kind of shield ourselves from the public, and they see such a difference. They're making friends. They're having more communication. We're able to do more, so it turned us from being a family that was pretty much stuck at home to being a family that was starting to look normal."
Moore said ABA therapy is the the most effective the earlier children with autism are integrated. If children do not respond to their name, use a lot of words or show interest in their peers by the time they are 2 years old, parents should tell their child's pediatrician to get them plugged into some services.