Big Transitions: Norah Graduates from ABA Therapy
October 30, 2021
October 30, 2021
From easing into an in-home tea party with mom, to independently drinking out of her cup during high tea fit for a princess at a real tea parlor, Hopebridge kiddo, Norah, has come so far in autism therapy. So far, in fact, that this little girl – whose family we spoke to before her first day at our center in Roswell, Georgia – just graduated from her program and is now in kindergarten!
Starting kindergarten was a really big milestone for Norah, not only because of some of her challenges associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but also after attending preschool digitally during the pandemic.
“The digital environment was so different. She struggles with sensory input, so the varying volumes and students speaking out of turn added new challenges in comparison to the on-site school experience,” said Norah’s mother, Angelica. “I knew she wanted to get back into the classroom, and thankfully, the transition was pretty smooth.”
In order to prepare for her transition to kindergarten, her Hopebridge therapy team tried to mirror the school day as closely as possible. This included participating in snack time, independent work time and circle time.
They taught her classroom etiquette, such as raising hands and waiting to be called upon. Norah’s BCBA, Whitney DiMatteo, printed off pictures of Norah and other students with phrases like “quiet” and “my turn to talk.” Learning these rules came in handy even within the virtual setting, as Angelica could hold them up to help guide Norah while online with her class.
Hopebridge did not stop providing Norah with the tools she needed for the classroom once she arrived. Her therapy team bridged the transition and continued to focus on areas in which she could use more support.
At school, Norah struggled with safety in the parent pickup line, for example. Her school asked Angelica to pick up Norah in the office for her protection, at which time she asked if they could work on safety strategies with her so she could rejoin the carpool line with the others.
“She didn’t understand that just seeing mommy’s car didn’t make it safe to run over to it,” said Angelica. “I asked Hopebridge what we could do to help make this transition smoother. She has an obsession with pictures and cutting them out, so her therapist, Marlon, used them to practice with her.”
Hopebridge ABA Trainer Marlon Wynn made little versions of Norah and others using pictures on popsicle sticks, as well as a mock school out of cardboard. He and Norah used them to role play the various car line situations she experiences at school. From there, he created a makeshift pickup lane outside the Hopebridge center, complete with a laminated sign at the pickup area to mimic what she sees at school. Marlon would have her wait until Angelica pulled up and stopped at the line before she could go near the car. After about two weeks, Norah learned the safety rules and was ready to put her new skills into action.
As part of the transition, Norah’s therapy team provided support in other areas of her education, as well.
“Whitney and Janelle, Hopebridge’s regional BCBA, have supported us every step of the way. They helped me research Norah’s rights when her school breached her educational rights,” said Angelica. “She had made so much progress and her IEP no longer reflected her skillset, but the school wouldn’t update her goals. After fighting tooth and nail, we were able to get her reevaluated, which enabled us to place her in a general education classroom.”
Now that Norah is in the classroom, she’s flourishing. You may remember that Norah was mostly non-speaking when first attending Hopebridge. Now, not only does she vocalize her wants and needs (and everything in between!), but she reads at a 2nd grade level.
School also allows Norah to put her social skills to use. Her teacher says she’s a cheerleader for other kids, always participates and follows directions. Her time in applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) helped her recognize her peers and engage with others. At school, she’s energetic, happy to be around other kids, and is making friends. She tells her mom that she plays princes-and-princesses with the other students during recess.
Unfortunately, Norah did experience an issue with one of the boys in her class, but was successfully able to communicate with her teacher about it. Angelica told us Whitney had coached Norah on how to recognize bullying and stick up for herself so she is not taken advantage of by others.
Norah has learned to use her voice to self-advocate in other ways, as well. She requests help, when needed. For instance, she’s sensitive to motor noises, but will now request headphones or put them on herself. This is huge for her, as it also requires motor skills that used to be quite difficult for her.
Music and art are her favorite parts of the school day, though she would probably prefer to skip P.E. She often asks her mom, “Am I going to music today?”
This month, Norah celebrated her graduation from Hopebridge with a bittersweet send-off. The party room at the center was decked out with the blue fairy from Pinocchio, a large balloon banner and picture of Norah.
“Hopebridge went all-out with decorations for her and had a special visit from one of her past RBTs, Lizzie Decker, who came in from the Woodstock center,” said Angelica. “We walked into the room and were overcome with emotion. Her therapists and all the other patients were there. Her dad, Covy, and I were not expecting that big of a crowd to celebrate her.”
Leading up to the big day, her therapy team created a PowerPoint presentation version of a graduation social story for her. They went over it with Norah to explain what graduation is, what it means for her, why she will no longer attend therapy at the center, and all the things she accomplished while there. Norah read the presentation aloud to everyone on her own.
“Marlon read a fairy tale-themed poem he wrote for her. We were all crying!” said Angelica. “You could tell Norah wasn’t just a patient at Hopebridge. Her team has become family to us, so while this was an emotional day, it’s not goodbye. I’ll always see them as family.”
Her therapy team feels the same way.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to work with one child so intensely for such a long amount of time. Norah is one of the most amazing kids I’ve ever worked with and I’m so proud of her,” said Whitney. “She inspired me to broaden my own knowledge and tools. I knew she was too smart and was going to memorize what we were working on, so I couldn’t keep doing things in the same way. Hopebridge provided me with the resources and training for a new assessment and programming through PEAK, and it was all because of her.”
As Marlon puts it, “Norah commands the room.” She’s full of life and will say “hello” and talk to anyone.
Norah has made another new “friend” in her life outside of therapy and school—her new baby brother! She absolutely adores Covy, named after their father.
“At first, she was sensitive to his crying and would go into meltdown mode. Norah is a very visual learner and thrived on social stories, so Hopebridge formulated some social stories around her baby brother,” said Angelica. “The stories taught her about the changes, which helped her understand. I remember she asked me, ‘Mommy, is this a big, big change for you?’”
Sometimes if she’s had a rough day or tired, her tolerance for his cries will go down again, but now that he is a bit older, she happily notices when he tries to interact with her through a smile or playing.
As for other areas of her daily life, she continues to work on her fine and gross motor skills, both in school and at home. Norah enjoys riding her bike. She is now able to write her name, which is a big deal for her. Angelica told us her daughter would previously become upset whenever she brought out writing materials, but now Norah already started writing her wish list for Santa—which includes a baby Rapunzel doll.
Imaginary play with dolls and stuffed animals continue to be a big part of Norah’s life since the last time we checked in with her. She loves her princess castle, which was a gift for Christmas, and pretends the lamps in her home are towers in which the princesses – her dolls – are trapped.
It’s fun to see how the pretend tea party her mom was so excited about has come full circle. In March – two years later – Norah celebrated her 5th birthday at a tea parlor. She wore a Princess Aurora dress and dined on princess-themed cakes and cookies made just for her. She even sipped from her tea cup with her pinky up!
As for Norah’s future, Angelica’s wish for her is that she keeps thriving.
“My biggest worry is that we will be going at it alone without the support from Hopebridge in the background, but the parent training sessions with them have given me more insight on the things I can do to help her moving forward,” said Angelica, who aims to be creative with social stories and other strategies to help her grow.
“I used to think autism was her superpower. I have sort of changed my mind since then; now I believe it’s her will and ability to fight through those obstacles. She’s fought so hard to do the things other kids around her can do with ease. Even in her frustration, she doesn’t give up. Something that may be a weakness for her now, she’ll be able to start doing three months down the road. She’s incredible,” said Angelica.
Norah’s story is special, unique and inspiring, but she’s not alone in her ability to broaden her opportunities and skills through autism therapy. We are here to help other children with autism find their own paths.
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