MOKA has been Dyson’s ‘go-to’

ABA therapy helps youngster blossom at home and school

Motivated by toy cars and trucks, and walks outside when the weather is nice, Dyson’s progress in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy has been nothing short of amazing.

MOKA has been Dyson’s one constant in life since the age of 3, and he has found consistency and comfort in the Youth Autism Program’s caring employees.

Dyson continues to surpass standard norms at his six-month assessments. Now 5 years old, he has moved from a self-contained special education classroom to full inclusion in a general education setting.

When Dyson first started at MOKA in May 2017, he only used one word for everything – “ERT” – and would cry a lot. He began therapy using a picture exchange communication system. He now speaks in full sentences, asks questions, and always smiles.

“When I met him, he was talking my ear off; he’s just a really bright, fun kid,” says Shawna Finos, Youth Autism Program Supervisor, who started working with Dyson in 2019 as a behavior technician.

“Specifically, during this last assessment period, a lot of kids will typically get a 20- or 30-point increase, and his was over 300 points, which was crazy,” Shawna says. “I have never seen that before.”

MOKA’s ABA therapy focuses on communication skills, language and learning skills, life skills, and social skills for ages 18 months to 21 years old. Most participants are 4 to 8 years old. The goal is to improve their communication, emotion regulation, language, and learning skills, play and leisure skills, overall independence, and interactions with others so they can succeed at home and in school.

“Just the progress he has made since I became his clinician, it’s a lot, and it’s really cool to see,” Shawn says. “I will go to his school and I observe there and just seeing the progress go from therapy into school is really cool to watch too.”

Shawna now writes Dyson’s treatment plan and assesses his skills and behavior every six months. A Board-Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst, Shawna has been astounded by his progress. “Specifically, during this last assessment period, a lot of kids will typically get a 20- or 30-point increase, and his was over 300 points, which was crazy,” Shawna says. “I have never seen that before.”

Shawna says Dyson continues to grow and learn each day, and his main work in therapy is focused on controlling his emotions. Therapy sessions include a mix of playtime and focused activities. Dyson has progressed to working on fluent matching and labeling, requesting information using “how” questions, making verbal associations, labeling the function and class of items, and writing uppercase letters.

“We give them tons of reinforcement even if it’s coming and sitting down at the table when they first get in there or picking up their toys when they’re asked,” Shawna says. “They come back to the table and complete more work and they can go play for a little bit.”

Dyson’s transformation has been a team effort, involving Anastasia Bonner, a Youth Autism Program Specialist, who has worked with Dyson since the beginning. Shawna also credits Dyson’s success to mom Nancy, who is a special education teacher.

Shuffled around in foster homes during his early years, Dyson finally found the stability, support, and love he needed in Nancy. She had already adopted four children and thought her family was complete until she met little Dyson. “When I met him, I fell in love with him, so I was like ‘Yeah, okay, we’ll add one more, we’ll add one more,” Nancy says.

Nancy works with Dyson at home, too, reinforcing what he learns in therapy and implementing his therapists’ suggestions. “He has a pretty tight-knit group of people around him,” Shawna says. “With Nancy and Dyson’s relationship, they are extremely close. When I see them in their home setting or when I see him when she picks him up, he’s constantly giving her hugs and tells her he loves her and calls her mom. It’s really cool. I’m glad he’s finally in a family that has such caring people in it.”

This summer, his previous foster mother stopped by while on walk, and she could not believe his personality changes. “She was like ‘Oh my gosh, he talks and he plays with other children,’ and she like was totally amazed with him,” Nancy says. “Overall, he has just become a different child. He’s able to communicate his wants and needs a lot better, and I think that is a huge reason for the decrease in behavior issues.”

Nancy took Dyson to Generation Care for a speech analysis, and he didn’t qualify because he was age-appropriate.

“This was a child, when I first met him, who was told he might never be potty trained, would not talk, and would be super needy his whole life, and right now he is actually on target and age-appropriate in all areas,” Nancy says. “I mean the turnaround has just been crazy.”

Dyson had been diagnosed with autism and was already in the ABA program when Nancy met him. She believes the support from MOKA and Dyson’s ongoing therapy has been a huge factor in getting him on par with his peers.

“He has had MOKA longer than he has had anything or anyone,” Nancy says. “I mean that has been his go-to; that is what he has known for longer than anything else.”

Shawna says working with the kiddos in ABA therapy is rewarding, especially getting to track their progress between assessments. In her clinician role, she mostly writes treatment programs, conducts assessments, and supervises some of the therapy sessions. The technicians work one-on-one with the individuals.

“It really is a group effort,” Shawna says. “The staff that we have are amazing and they’re actually in there every day one-on-one with these kids and it can get, you know, pretty tough sometimes, especially with some of the kiddos who have aggression and tantrums and stuff, but it is definitely very rewarding.”

The goal of ABA is to create socially significant behavior change that has a positive impact on the individual’s quality of life. ABA specialists work with families to develop an individualized treatment plan that focuses on communication, academic success, self-help and independence, social, gross and fine motor skills, and emotional outbursts.

“For me now in a clinical role, when I look at it, even if I haven’t seen a kid in a week and then I go in and I’m like ‘look, oh they can do that skill now, they didn’t have that skill last week,’” Shawna says. “It’s really cool to see.”

Dyson is well on his way to “graduating” from ABA therapy, and he is a shining example of the impact early intervention and home reinforcements can have.