Moving on From ABA Therapy and Into the Classroom: Santino Loves Going to School
March 03, 2022
March 03, 2022
We’re all about celebrating the small wins at Hopebridge, but of course we get super excited about the big moments, too.
Like many of our Hopebridge kiddos, 5-year-old Santino had the chance to experience a range of wins at our autism therapy centers in Phoenix, Arizona. From speaking first words to full sentences, connecting with his parents to engaging in peer play, and then recognizing his name and letters to ultimately going to school full-time, Santino’s days at Hopebridge gave him the time to shine!
After a little more than two years in applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) at Hopebridge, Santino recently graduated from therapy to start kindergarten at a local charter school.
“He has grown leaps and bounds. It’s crazy to think what it was like two years ago—there was no connection whatsoever. We did not have a way to connect with our child,” said Santino’s mother, Elizabeth. “We can now communicate with each other. He will take direction and we’re even at a point where he can self-regulate, which is part of why his therapy team and I thought it was time for him to transition to school.”
It has been exciting for Santino’s family and therapy team to watch him flourish over the past couple years, especially because they know he was not dealt the easiest cards in life. In addition to some of his developmental delays, his parents learned he did not have hearing in one ear and that he was allergic to corn, among other medical conditions.
By the time Santino turned 2 years old, he did not make eye contact, nor did he have an effective way to communicate. He sometimes grunted, signed a little bit and could vocalize a few words. At this time, his pediatrician recommended his family seek a developmental evaluation and early intervention services.
When he was originally evaluated by the state, they wanted to put him in speech therapy, but Elizabeth was told his attention span was so limited that they needed to move him into behavioral therapy, in addition to occupational therapy.
“His brain was frazzled and all over the place because he could not focus. He’d become aggressive; he would throw, hit, harm himself and could not sit. He could not do speech therapy because he wasn’t at a place where it could be effective,” said Elizabeth.
Soon after beginning services, both of Santino’s therapists mentioned to his parents that it was a good idea for them to have him tested for autism.
“When the pediatrician first mentioned it, my husband and I didn’t think my son had autism. In my mind, he didn’t have those ‘stereotypical traits.’ Turns out he did; I just didn’t know what the signs of autism actually were,” said Elizabeth. “Once he was in therapy and we started to understand what autism spectrum disorder is, there was no doubt in our mind that he had it. We decided to have him evaluated right away.”
While he was in therapy, his parents also decided to place him in developmental preschool.
“It was hard. They were special education teachers, but the classroom was not equipped for his needs, which were much higher then than they are now. He was nonverbal, engaged in destructive behaviors and aggression, and was not able to do anything for himself,” said Elizabeth.
Anxious to learn and do more for her son, Elizabeth joined a few autism-focused Facebook groups and began soaking up everything she could about ASD. While scrolling through the social network, she came across Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers, and dove into finding out more about ABA therapy.
“I didn’t know anything about ABA before this, but it sounded like something that could benefit Santino so I reached out to Hopebridge. The intake process was completely smooth,” said Elizabeth.
The Glendale center was brand new and Santino started therapy within the first couple weeks after it opened. Eventually, when the Litchfield Park center opened, Santino followed his board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), Dawna, to the new location for therapy, which was closer to home and more convenient for their family.
“It wasn’t easy for Santino at the start of therapy, but we quickly realized this was where he was growing. We removed him from his developmental preschool and shifted to full-time ABA at Hopebridge, rather than part-time. That’s when we started to see some major progress. The rest is history!”
Hopebridge has made a large impact on Santino’s communication and social skills. When he started at the center, he was mostly non-speaking, but became verbal in a six-month span. Now he speaks in full sentences, recognizes his names and letters, matches colors and understands social cues. He especially enjoyed gym time and circle time at the center, where he’d play alongside other kids. The loving, compassionate boy – dubbed a “Love Bug” by his mom – adores affection from others. Hugs ended up becoming one of his preferred reinforcers, so it’s safe to say his bond with his therapists was strong!
“Socialization was a really big focus for us. He had no concept of how to engage in peer-to-peer play,” said Elizabeth. “Hopebridge helped a lot with this; teaching him how to be respectful to others, how to treat peers, and how he can react in social settings. This has also helped him interact with his sisters, Serenity and Sariah.”
Santino started his more intensive, full-time therapy program in the same month his younger sister was born. Though the timing was not planned, as his sister unexpectedly arrived several weeks early, Elizabeth told us it was everything he and their family needed at that moment.
Socialization wins were big for Santino’s family, but his progress went beyond his newfound skills in communication. Through ABA therapy, Santino learned to drink from an open cup and use utensils. One of the biggest deals to his mom, though? Toilet-training.
“We had potty training goals for a year. I thought it might never happen and had fully accepted diapers as a part of our journey,” said Elizabeth. “But we sat him down on the potty every day at home and at Hopebridge, and one day it just clicked. No more daytime diapers! It truly was about setting those goals with his BCBA, staying consistent and always showing up for him.”
Though Santino has accomplished so much throughout therapy, his mom reminds us that he still has his moments, as all of us do: “We’re human; we all have our moments, but he’s overcome so much in two years.”
Once Elizabeth and Santino’s therapy team began looking into the concept of transitioning out of ABA, it moved along fairly quickly. About a month prior, they began using social stories to teach him about the changes in routine.
By the time Christmas rolled around, Elizabeth let him know on a nightly basis that they would no longer see Miss Dawna or Miss Robin each day, and that he would go to a new school and meet new friends. His therapy team also used story time each day to talk about it with him. This included asking how he felt, such as whether he was happy or anxious.
“He did surprisingly well with the transition. I think I was more hurt about leaving Hopebridge than he might have been!” said Elizabeth. “The truth is, he might have just outgrown the programs. We loved it there so much. This was our second family, but he needed to continue to evolve. He reached this point of massive progress that none of us could keep up with without moving onto the next step.”
When the time came, Dawna hosted a graduation ceremony for Santino at the Litchfield Park center. He walked through the hallway wearing his cap and gown as others threw confetti. They played the graduation song and everyone celebrated Santino by signing a giant poster for him.
Since then, Santino has been doing well in school.
“I was nervous at first. I expected a much higher level of aggression – we were prepared for a couple weeks of it – but it never happened. Instead, he took to it really quickly and loves going to school. I know his positive experience at school stems from the guidance he received at Hopebridge,” said Elizabeth.
When asked what some of her goals for Santino – or his own! – are for the future, she let us know that after years of setting goals for her child in therapy, she’s actually enjoying “just being” for a moment, without setting clear objectives. She does, however, hope he gravitates toward social interaction as he grows older.
“As a parent, it’s hard to go to the park and have all the kids leave or avoid him because he doesn’t talk or act like everyone else,” said Elizabeth. “My biggest long-term goal for him is to not forget who he is, but also to learn to connect with other people where they’re at, while hoping people will meet him where he’s at, too.”
While Elizabeth wishes other kids would include her son, she doesn’t fault them or their parents, and believes it’s an opportunity for others to learn more about autism and other people in general.
“I can’t get mad. Maybe they’ve never been in this experience where they’ve needed to learn to cope. As humans, we’re often afraid of the ‘different,’ the ‘new’ and the ‘uncertain.’ As hurt as I want to be, I have to realize it’s not necessarily their fault, but as a society, I wish we were more open-minded.”
Does your child have challenges that you believe may be related to autism? Elizabeth wants to remind you that you are not alone, and urges you not to give up.
“No matter how hard this journey got, I never gave up. I can’t tell you how many times during potty training that I thought I’d crumble, or when I was bawling my eyes out because I didn’t know if he’d lose his hearing or whether he’d ever be able to speak,” said Elizabeth.
“It can be daunting to think about how different our children’s lives will be, or the things the rest of us can do that we take for granted, which our kids may never be able to do, but as a parent, don’t ever give up. Constantly evolve and grow with them, through therapy or whatever works for your family,” she said. “That’s what I did with my son. We found ABA therapy and he absolutely thrived in this environment. I’m always going to do whatever it takes to help him thrive.”
We want to help your kiddo do the same. Let us help your child lead their best life, like Santino does. For some, that means arranging testing for autism with us. Or, if your child already has an autism diagnosis like Santino did, reach out to us for evaluations for ABA, speech, feeding and/or occupational therapy at one of our locations around the country.
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