“Underlying anxiety can manifest as disruptive and dangerous behavior that is frequently misunderstood by teachers, peers and staff,” said Donna Swanson, MSN, CS, APRN, Executive Director and co-founder of FOCUS Center for Autism. “The students are often bullied and consequenced for their autistic behaviors and asked to change what is biologically based rather than treating the cause of the behaviors and meeting their needs.”
For more than sixteen years, parents and educators have turned to the FOCUS program for individualized treatments plans focused on managing anxiety and increasing social competency. Now there is another option with the new appropriately named Fresh Start School for children 11-18 years old. With a low staff to student ratio and four experienced clinicians including an APRN, students learn to create meaningful relationships in a controlled social learning environment.
Based on Milieu Therapy that has been around since the 1800’s, FOCUS has redefined it as “planned social learning environments in which every day events and interpersonal interactions are turned to therapeutic use for the purpose of enhancing adaptive behavior skills and building confidence in the tools needed for ordinary living situations.” (Swanson, 2001).
Swanson notes there are three basic components to the FOCUS model which, when used together, offer an integral and comprehensive approach to treatment. These three components are Social Learning Environments, Mentorship and Collaboration.
“We are constantly supporting, nourishing and reinforcing the child’s ability to learn socially, emotionally and academically by offering a safe place for skills to be practiced and integrated into the child’s repertoire of strategies,” explained Swanson.
Students are referred to the Fresh Start School by schools, hospitals, parents and professionals that are struggling with behaviors associated with Autism spectrum disorder including extreme anxiety disorders, social-interaction difficulties and communication/processing challenges. FOCUS helps children understand their anxiety, develop impulse control and gain a sense of competency in learning and dealing with people and life events.
“We continuously address anxiety by meeting sensory needs, providing ‘on the spot emotional first aid’, giving snacks and comfort foods like hot chocolate,” said Swanson. “We tailor our anxiety strategies to the individual student and how they process their world.”
Swanson explains that while medications can be helpful, dosing can be tricky in children with Autism and they often require lower amounts. FOCUS also uses an evidenced-based mindfulness program to teach strategies to self-sooth and help teach self-regulation. The school has a sensory "tool box" that includes weighted blankets, sensory swings, body socks, and more.
To ensure a child’s success, FOCUS and the Fresh Start School have a rigorous intake process. Parents fill out an in-depth enrollment packet that leads to a targeted, individualized plan. Through the emphasis on daily routines, predictable rules and sensitive adult responses, individuals on the Autism Spectrum can establish and maintain social relationships and friendships so that social and emotional growth can blossom and academic success can become the norm. There are bi-monthly Parent Support Groups and Social Clubs for children and young adults.
“We witness the enthusiasm for our program when kids excitedly let us know that 'FOCUS ROCKS.'You can see it on their faces when they enter the building where they feel safe and accepted. Many of our kids have returned to their public schools, have gone on to college and are employed and live on their own. The best validation however, comes from the many kids and families who have learned to have hope and now have a place where they can belong,” concludes Swanson.
Since 2000, the nonprofit FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton has been dedicated to helping children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder, and other related disorders, achieve their full potential. FOCUS has developed a well-respected model of treatment that has now served over 800 children and families. The FOCUS Fresh Start School is a private, state approved special education program offering children with autism spectrum disorder a quality education experience that addresses both their academic and clinical needs. For more information visit http://focuscenterforautism.org or call (860) 693-8809.
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