HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Parents of children with autism in Horry County Schools have been working for a year now, pushing for more Applied Behavioral Analysis therapists.
Within the past year, over 50 parents with the Coalition of Autism Parents in Horry County have attended over a dozen school board meetings to speak up on the need for ABA therapy for their children, saying their needs are not being met because of a lack of certified therapists.
“We’ve heard all the stories, stories that included similar to mine, where my son just needs 40 hours of ABA every week and it’s not allowed in the school, and all the way to stories where parents have actually taken their kids out of the school system here to be able to put them in private school so that they can be able to receive their medically necessary care,” said David Warner with the Coalition of Autism Parents in Horry County.
ABA is often described as the "gold-standard" treatment for autism, teaching kids the basics like learning patience and social skills.
“These kids can become functional adults and receive what they need to be successful, if the right things are put in place for them,” said Warner.
Right now, the school district says there’s over 550 students in Horry County diagnosed with autism. Warner’s 8-year-old son, Zakkary, is just one of them who’s prescribed 40 hours of therapy a week but is limited to receiving between three to six hours a day.
Warner said his son needs proper therapy not just outside of school, but inside the classroom too, which is why he’s concerned.
“The school has been offering what they call ABA methodologies or strategies that they are training teachers how to do ABA. We love our teachers, but our teachers aren’t ABA therapists; they’re not qualified to do that," Warner said.
Right now, district officials said they employ two behavior specialists and one board certified behavior analyst, which is among the ABA certifications.
Outside of ABA, the district also employs six special education consultants for autism. The district spokesperson said there are more than 200 employees with specialized therapy skills, but none specific to ABA.
Parents of the coalition said that’s just not enough to cover 52 schools.
“There is a lack of ABA therapists in the state of South Carolina. However, most of our ABA therapists work in the evening because most of our kids need it in the evenings. This would give them the opportunities to go into the schools, and then it would lower the wait list because many kids would be able to receive their medically necessary care at school, so it could be a win for everybody - the kids, the school, the ABA therapist - and this wait list could go down, potentially, if the school was willing to make the change,” said Warner.
Many children are put on wait lists for three to five years to even get into any of the programs, which is why parents say it’s essential that schools offer it.
Now, Horry County Schools officials said they’re working to find a solution. Recently school board chairman Ken Richardson formed two new committees, one of which is the curriculum committee, to look into the idea of ABA therapy at schools.
Warner said he’s glad steps are finally being made in the right direction and is hoping for change to happen soon. He and other parents are hoping the district will start a program with ABA-certified therapists or at least allow children to bring their own therapists inside the school.
“We’ve already been put off long enough. Our kids are already waiting long enough. When we first started, we actually started asking my family three to four years ago for ABA therapy, and we can’t afford to keep waiting to receive it," Warner said. "My son could have potentially already been talking and already have skills to be successful or at least, you know, the most he could have at this point. That was just not available to him because they’ve been waiting to implement this ABA.
In addition to attending school board meetings, Warner had made efforts to attend state and national conferences to continue to raise awareness and work to implement change.
Lisa Bourcier, Horry County Schools spokesperson, said the district board is listening to parents’ concerns and are working with staff to research opportunities for students.