SPONSORED: Tackling Special Needs through Peer Integration Program - MetroFamily Magazine
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SPONSORED: Tackling Special Needs through Peer Integration Program

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 7 minutes 

For parents of children with special needs, the future often feels uncertain. Easter Seals Oklahoma is marked by the powerful symbol of the lily, a sign of hope and new beginnings, and the organization offers just that to children and adults with disabilities, and to the family members who love them.

For almost 90 years, Easter Seals Oklahoma has served children and adults with autism, developmental disabilities, physical and mental disabilities and other special needs. The non-profit organization’s screening, therapy and medical rehabilitation services help those they serve improve physical mobility, enhance communication, achieve personal goals and gain greater independence. In addition, Easter Seals Oklahoma offers direct financial assistance for the purchase of medical equipment for children and adults with disabilities.

Inclusive Child Development Center Helps Children of All Abilities Flourish

When a statewide survey revealed the need for an inclusive child development center, Easter Seals Oklahoma got to work building one. The Child Development Center launched in 2001 to serve children of all abilities in Oklahoma City. 

The center boasts accreditation by the National Association for Education of Young Children and is rated a 3-star center, the highest rating by the Department of Human Services. The inclusive environment means that children with disabilities and typically-developing children have the opportunity to play with and learn from each other. All children benefit from stimulating activities and individualized learning opportunities.

Perhaps most unique about the center are the on-site medical rehabilitation services like speech therapy and occupational therapy which are available for the children who need them. Licensed therapists provide occupational therapy to help with things like feeding, dressing, writing, increased hand-eye coordination, or appropriate response to touch and texture. Speech/language and hearing therapy can address deficiencies in communication, as well as oral-motor and feeding therapy.

Peer Integration Program Addresses Challenging Behaviors

As the Child Development Center began to work with more and more children exhibiting challenging behaviors, the idea for the Peer Integration Program began to take shape. Begun in 2014, the Peer Integration Program works with children who exhibit challenging behaviors at home and in school settings. Some children who participate in the program have diagnoses like Autism Spectrum Disorder or Down syndrome, and some don’t have a specific diagnosis but exhibit behaviors that interfere with successful learning. 

“We believe any behavior that impedes learning needs to be addressed,” said Ms. Dianda. “That can include passive or aggressive behaviors, anything that’s inappropriate or repetitive actions that are nonfunctional. Challenging behaviors need an intervention because these children cannot successfully achieve academic or communication goals without first addressing behavior goals.”

One of just a few board-certified behavior analysts in the state of Oklahoma, Ms. Dianda had experience with Easter Seals Oklahoma and the Child Development Center prior to becoming the director of medical rehabilitation. She had formerly worked as a consultant with teachers at the Center, developing strategies for students exhibiting challenging behaviors. Her full-time hire and the expansion of her services to the Peer Integration Program was made possible by a grant from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. 

Through the Peer Integration Program, Ms. Dianda first thoroughly assesses a child who is exhibiting challenging behaviors and then creates an individualized intervention plan, according to that child’s specific needs, skills and developmental level. She assesses the child’s target behavior to determine their function and how best to decrease them, while at the same time increasing appropriate behaviors. She also works with the child’s parents and teachers, observes the child in his or her home and school environments and even reviews things like diet and sleep to determine if they are contributing to the challenging behaviors. Once the assessment is complete and a plan has been developed, families and teachers can share and discuss the plan so that everyone is working as a cohesive team to help the child reduce challenging behaviors.

In its early stages, the Peer Integration Program was solely available to children at Easter Seals Oklahoma’s Child Development Center. Ms. Dianda thoroughly trained the staff at the Center to recognize challenging behaviors and separate those behaviors from each child. She worked with teachers to develop preventative strategies to combat difficult behaviors, as well as individualized behavior plans specific to each child’s needs. The program emphasizes behavioral services over medication.

“The program has grown a lot, and as needs have arisen, we have added components,” said Ms. Dianda

To help meet the needs of the children in the program, Easter Seals Oklahoma offers free monthly educational workshops and training sessions. Home visits are offered as needed, and assistance is provided in developing the child’s Individualized Education Program when that child transitions to public school.

Workshops, Social Skills Group Offer Support to Community

Now, the Peer Integration Program is open to the community through free monthly workshops and a social skills group which is offered in the summer. The people who attend the trainings range from parents and family members to professionals and school administrators. Topics range from strategies for reducing challenging behaviors and using reinforcement effectively, to communication intervention strategies and potty training.

“Parents and professionals can certainly benefit from our program, but grandparents, relatives and friends of individuals with special needs, as well as students or individuals interested in working in the field, can gain a lot as well,” said Ms. Dianda.

To directly help and support the children themselves, Easter Seals Oklahoma began offering a social skills group. The group teaches social and behavioral skills to children with autism, social deficits and related developmental disabilities, helping them learn to interact appropriately with others. Because ASD in particular is primarily a social disorder, being around other children and learning how to develop relationships are critical.

“These children don’t know how to play, how to filter their words or build friendships,” said Ms. Dianda. “We are teaching them things like how to have a conversation, stay on topic and deal with anger.”

Early Screening Critical to Children’s Development

The first five years in a child’s life are crucial for their development and establishing a firm foundation upon which to grow and learn. As such, it’s also the most important time for children to be screened and offered support for a developmental delay or special need. Research shows that the earlier a child is diagnosed and begins treatment for a developmental delay, the better their chances at reaching their full potential. That also means children who aren’t diagnosed early miss important opportunities for help during their critical early years of development.

One in 68 children is affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. That is more children than are affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome combined. The average age a child is diagnosed with ASD is between 4 and 5 years old, often when they begin school. However, early intervention can begin as early as 18 months if a delay is recognized.

The number of children with ASD is growing, due in part to diagnostic improvements and greater awareness. To recognize Autism Awareness Month last April, Easter Seals Oklahoma offered free autism screenings in Oklahoma City. The response was overwhelming, with families traveling from as far away as Enid and Tulsa for the screenings.

“We were packed all day long and continued to get calls, so we now offer screenings on a monthly basis,” said Mia Dianda, director of medical rehabilitation for Easter Seals Oklahoma.

Free monthly screenings help detect developmental delays, ASD and other disabilities. The program raises awareness about the importance of early detection and provides a valuable resource to parents who are concerned about their children’s development. The hope is that more children at risk for developmental delays or disabilities will be identified and directed to critical early intervention programs.

While the screening itself does not provide a diagnosis, Ms. Dianda and team members take time to carefully interview the parents and interact with the child to determine if further testing is necessary. During the screening, Ms. Dianda can immediately begin to teach parents strategies to address the child’s specific challenging behaviors at home. If warranted, Ms. Dianda refers the child to a psychiatrist, who performs a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. The screenings are available to children through age 9.

Increased Funding Key to Growing Services

Easter Seals Oklahoma is currently serving 25 children with special needs onsite, and the organization recognizes the need to continue to extend its services. Coming from California, Ms. Dianda sees awareness about ASD, developmental disabilities and challenging behaviors growing in our state, but Oklahoma still has a long way to go.

“Delivering the services is challenging in our state, but awareness is improving,” said Ms. Dianda. “We need services for these families that are research-based so we can see progress for their children or loved ones.”

The challenge is that providing the services these children need is both costly and time consuming.

“Research shows that children with autism need 30 hours per week of therapy,” said Ms. Dianda. “Unfortunately, because of time, resources and financial constraints, I am usually only able to provide them the minimum.”

Unless families have Tricare insurance, the health care program for uniformed service members, they are typically paying for costly therapies out of pocket.

“I train parents who want to learn how to provide therapy services to their children at home,” said Ms. Dianda. 

While professional therapy services is always preferred, when families can’t afford the recommended hours per week, this gives them the opportunity to offer therapy at home. While Ms. Dianda will continue to offer training to parents who are interested, her long-term plan is to secure funding for families who can’t afford professional therapy.

“The next step is to get funding so we can scholarship families to receive this type of therapy,” said Ms. Dianda. 

For more information on Easter Seals Oklahoma, including screening for developmental delays, training sessions and how you can help, visit www.eastersealsok.org.

Erin Page is a freelance writer, graphic designer and public relations professional based in Edmond. She is nationally accredited in public relations, and her professional experience spans the healthcare, tourism, nonprofit, education and small business sectors. Her proudest achievements are being wife to Jordan and mom to 3-year-old Addie and 1-year-old Hutch. Her other loves include cooking, running and her Oklahoma State Cowboys.

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