First Children Services’ STRIVE Autism Care Continuum provides children and their families with exceptional services and encouraging outcomes.
For many parents, learning that their child has been diagnosed with autism can be quite overwhelming. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability of varying degrees. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects approximately 1 in every 54 children in the United States and 1 in 32 in New Jersey. While there is no cure for autism, early intervention using social skills-training and behavioral therapy can yield stellar results.
Since 2009, First Children Services has been providing a comprehensive continuum of care, taking an integrated approach to specialized education and therapeutic services that addresses the unique needs of children and their families. Their STRIVE Autism Care Continuum is dedicated to improving the lives of children with autism by offering a wide range of services including screening and diagnostic clinics, applied behavior analysis (ABA), psychological counseling, social skills groups, and behavioral parent training, all under one roof.
The family-owned and -operated organization recognizes the impact autism has, not just on the individual child, but on the entire family as well. First Children Services CEO Matthew Hess explains, “Oftentimes when a child is diagnosed with autism, there is a tremendous amount of focus on that child but the effects reverberate throughout the whole family. We offer family therapy through our licensed mental health clinicians and support groups for parents and siblings, who oftentimes feel left out when so much attention is given to the child with autism.”
Hess notes thatfamily therapy also provides another valuable resource for the success of managing autism. “We know that to get optimal outcomes for a child, we need to address the needs of the family unit. It’s not always enough to work with a child for several hours a week at our facility. We rely heavily on family involvement; therefore, we help train the family to be our partner in the home and in that child’s life beyond therapy. Continuity of care throughout that child’s life is essential and parental involvement is a vital component of the process.”
With early intervention being a crucial key to successfully navigating the waters of autism, one of the most frustrating obstacles is the lengthy wait for a diagnosis. Since autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can only be diagnosed through developmental history and behavior, some families have to wait months or even years to get an official diagnosis. “Early signs of autism are usually noticed at a child’s pediatric wellness visits, typically around 18 months to 2 years of age. However, the long waitlist to have your child seen by a specialist can be disheartening. Delaying diagnosis and or treatment could have a profoundly negative effect on that child’s ability to lead an independent life. Fortunately, at First Children Services, we’ve expanded our diagnostic capabilities to meet this need and can often provide an initial evaluation within just a matter of days. Our licensed psychologists are able to diagnose children who may have ASD which greatly reduces thatcritical waiting period.” Hess adds, “Many times, when children are diagnosed at a young age, such as 2 years old, they are able to partake in an intensive therapeutic program, often consisting of 30-40 hours a week. This high utilization type therapeutic intervention can often mean that the child will be able to attend a typical kindergarten class and appear no different than their peers.”
The degrees of autism vary and therefore their tangible gains can differ greatly. “They call autism a spectrum for a reason. There are kids who are very high functioning and with the right supports, especially with early intervention, they can go and live very typical lives, almost indistinguishable versus their peers. Then there are children whose needs are more acute and for those kids we aim to curb some of their behaviors, so their disability is more manageable.”
First Children Services prides itself on its individualized one-on-one treatment programs, ensuring higher degrees of success. “We believe the best way to drive outcomes for kids is a true integrated interdisciplinary model of care and that’s the hallmark behind our STRIVEAutism Care Continuum,” Hess says. “It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Certain kids need an intensive ABA therapy whereas other kids do not.” He adds, “There is a high rate of comorbidity with autism and other co-occurring mental health issues, with anxiety being a very common co-occurring challenge. The process of integrating mental health services with more traditional behavioral approaches like ABA is what differs us from our competitors and is truly the best for the children and their families.” The STRIVE Autism Care Continuum is offered through the First Children Services facilities, in-home therapy, and/or through the child’s school. “Working in conjunction with the private and public schools has allowed us to deliver the necessary supports in order for the child to be mainstreamed with their peers in school.”
With over 450 dedicated staff throughout the organization, First Children Services is able to work with over 1,200 children with varying degrees of disabilities on any given day. The connections made between the kids, their families and the staff are truly heartwarming. “This is a life-changing diagnosis for the whole family and will stay with the child for most or all of that child’s life, to some degree,” Hess says. “We want to be a support system for the entire family. We not only offer an exceptional therapeutic intervention for the child but also a compassionate shoulder for parents to lean on while they are navigating this as well.”
First Children Services
Multiple locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 1 (April 2021).