Fort Bend ISD offering unique program for kids with Autism

HOUSTON – Students at the Fort Bend Independent School District started school this week, and there's a unique program available inside Ridgemont Elementary School.

It's the first public school in the state to offer applied behavioral analysis, or ABA therapy, to kids with Autism.

ABA teaches reinforcement. Students feel successful with even small tasks and then enjoy learning new things. That can set them up to be successful for the rest of their lives but some families have to forgo the therapy because it's too expensive.

The Early Intervention Academy at Ridgemont Elementary is now looking to change that. The program has musical therapists, speech therapists and behavior analysts like Melissa Waters.

Waters guarantees her students with Autism will get 20 hours of ABA. Parents usually pay thousands of dollars for this kind of therapy.

“For the first time, I'm able to provide my services at no cost to families,” Waters said.

On the first day of school, Waters demonstrated ABA with one student using a bell and a stuffed animal. Right away, the little girl went toward the stuffed animal, clueing Waters into a good reinforcement toy for her. From now on, the little girl may learn to match pictures or group numbers, but she'll get time with the toy to reinforce good work.

Waters said this reinforcement in pre-kindergarten could have her ready to go to general education schools by the time she's 6 years old.

Fort Bend ISD is covering the cost of the program for 40 students. Anyone with 3-, 4- or 5-year-olds living in the district can qualify for the spots left at the academy and get transportation there.

“We wanted to develop an innovative program, especially to target our young children and even to pull parents that are in private schools, to get them back into our school district,” Special Education Executive Director Deena Hill said. “Many times it's the families who have the means to do this that are able to take their children to a clinic. They're able to provide transportation, and we really wanted to make something available for parents that don't.”

Parents like Jessica Maldonado.

"Me and my husband were working and it was hard for us to," Maldonado said. "He had to work night shift so we can pick him up a half-day and take him to ABA and do this and do that… and what I love about this program is that everything is already here.”

Early-intervention ABA can set up students for a lifetime of success. Unfortunately, for the families who cannot get it, Waters said it may take more money and more therapy later in life.

“I have worked as a behavior analyst in other settings with teenagers and adults who did not get this kind of early intervention at a young age, and, unfortunately, some very serious and dangerous problem behaviors developed over time,” Waters said.

Hill said the Early Intervention Academy is working to try to get grants and additional funding to expand. In the meantime, there are a few slots left for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Click here to download an application.