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Education Reporter

Behavioral Intervention Can Help Autism
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Parents of severely autistic children face many additional challenges in communicating with and disciplining their children. A recent CNN story followed one autistic girl as she and her family received professional help over the course of a week from a behavioral therapist.

Parents John and Mary Bilson sought help because their daughter's tantrums were affecting every area of their lives. 13-year-old Marissa would scream for hours unless she got her way. Her tantrums made life miserable not only for her parents, but also for her 15-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother. The Bilsons couldn't go anywhere together because Marissa might start screaming at any moment, and would attempt to steal any object she saw and liked in a store.

Behavioral therapist Rick Schroeder, from the group Autism Partnership, agreed that Marissa was "out of control." Schroeder worked with Marissa in the Bilson's home for five days, using a behavior-modification technique called "applied behavior analysis." Through this technique, Schroeder broke down Marissa's behavior patterns into their components and showed her parents how to lay down boundaries and rules in a way that takes Marissa's autism into account.

"It's all about the teaching," said Schroeder. "With a child like Marissa, we can't sit down and discuss it with her — she's just not going to get that. So we have to take it in small steps. Make them understandable and move on, one step at a time."

The Bilsons have had notable success in continuing the progress they made with Schroeder's help during the intervention. "I learned that Marissa is smart," said Mary Bilson. "Smarter than I thought." With new knowledge of what Marissa does and doesn't understand, Mary and John now reward their daughter for following the rules they have set down. Marissa has abandoned some of her most disruptive behaviors, including her fits of screaming. The Bilsons can even go out in public together without fearing that Marissa will create a scene.

Because the Bilsons allowed CNN to observe and tape the process, Autism Partnership provided the intervention free of charge. Normally, the week-long process would have cost about $20,000. Although many families can't afford such an expensive treatment, the fact that such behavioral interventions can succeed may give hope to parents struggling with this little-understood and traumatic problem. Perhaps over time such treatments will become more accessible, and the principles that worked so well for Marissa will be popularized for other families who are at a loss to cope with their autistic children. (CNN, 02-04-09)

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