Autism Spectrum Therapies

Easton Belokas is flanked by Autism Spectrum Therapies behavior analysts Michele Vail, left, and Christina Ricciardelli.

A specialized learning center is opening its newest location this will and will teach children with autism the necessary skills for school – from communication and behavior to making friends.

Autism Spectrum Therapies, or AST, based out of California, currently has    centers in Tempe and Tucson, where they use applied behavior analysis treatment. Six of the 12 AST board-certified behavior specialists will be at the Gilbert center.

Gilbert resident and Clinical Director Jessica Belokas explains she, “saw a need and a demand in Gilbert,” for this center. “There’s a great need in the East Valley for autism services.” 

According to Belokas, “There are lots of families” with autistic children in Gilbert; which has experienced steady increases of autism diagnosis’ over the last 10 years.

Belokas attributed the increase to a combination of better prescreening by pediatricians and a better understanding of developmental disabilities.

Last week, the staff added finishing touches to the center’s five therapy rooms.

Autism spectrum disorder, which can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, affects about 1 in 59 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The total estimated annual costs for   autism treatments in the United States is between $11.5 billion – $60.9 billion, according to the most recent CDC survey. Additionally, families with ASD children and adolescents on average spend $4,110–$6,200 more per year on medical expenditures than those without ASD. 

Because there is no medical test, doctors are able to diagnose autism by looking at a child’s behavior and development. ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months or younger.

There is currently no cure but research shows early intervention services can improve a child’s development.

“We focus on early intervention and have clients as young as 18 months, who may not be accessing the public-school system yet,” Belokas said. 

“Our purpose is to get them early and teach them communication skills, behavior management skills, social skills and other executive functioning skills so they can access the typical educational environment when they enter pre and kindergarten at age 3, 4, 5,” she added.

AST, founded in 2001 by two doctors, is based on the principles of teaching in the natural environment with a focus on the family and centering on building functional skills that foster independence, according to the company website.

Clinicians conduct an extensive evaluation of a child’s present levels to determine appropriate goals and intervention strategies. 

Programs are then tailored to the child’s unique interests and strengths and sessions are often incorporated into typically occurring family routines.  

“Our services are home-based, as well as in the clinic and community,” Belokas said. “They can receive therapy service wherever it’s deemed appropriate.”

She said for service at schools, most of the clinic’s partnerships are with private and charter schools.

The clinic serves children to young adults with all levels of autism.

“We have families waiting for our doors to open,” Belokas said. “We have a waiting list as well.”

The clinic can immediately accommodate families who request services before 3 p.m. but there is an 18-month waiting list for those requesting services after 3 p.m., she said.

Depending on a child’s needs, the clinic may recommend anywhere from a minimum of 10 hours of services a week to 30 hours a week, she added.

Gilbert mom Katie Hurstwicker, whose two sons received ABA therapy at the Tempe location, plans to switch over to the Gilbert clinic. 

“I have been driving 30 minutes to Tempe,” she said. “So I’m ecstatic that they will have an office so close to me now.”

When her oldest son, who is 7, was first diagnosed two years ago with autism, Hurstwicker said she felt overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless.

Although there are hundreds of treatment options, the psychologist who saw her son recommended AST, Hurstwicker said, adding ABA therapy  is the only treatment endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder and is backed by years of scientific research.

“AST has given my son, myself and my family the tools to be tackle autism spectrum disorder,” she said. “AST gave me the knowledge, support and confidence to best support my son.”

She said the staff is involved in every aspect of her son’s life to where he has made positive and meaningful strides, emotionally, socially and behaviorally.   

“When my 2-year-old son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum 10 months ago, AST was my first call to get him started with their treatment team,” she said. “After 10 months of ABA therapy through AST, my almost 3-year-son is now almost indistinguishable from his neurotypical peers.”

AST has plans for more locations in the Valley with an eye on Glendale for sometime next year.

“As soon as we are up and running, we will start looking at the end of September, October for appropriate space,” Belokas said.

Though other companies offer similar services, Belokas said there’s a lot that sets AST apart from them.

“We are family-centered and like to individualize our program to the families and individuals we serve,” she said. “We have a vast network of very experienced professionals and we value evidence-based practices and top-service.”

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