By Anthony Castrovince
When Sherry Quinn’s then-2-year-old Michael was diagnosed with autism in 1995, she experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. But she says fear of the unknown was the worst.
“It was very traumatic,” she says. “Back then, you didn’t know what that diagnosis meant. There were hardly any resources.”
Quinn turned that obstacle into opportunity. Thanks to the work she’s done to create the Indianapolis-based Applied Behavior Center for Autism, Central Indiana parents of children with autism have a dependable place to turn to for diagnostic testing, occupational therapy, speech therapy and even swim lessons.
The Applied Behavior Center for Autism (ABC) has eight facilities, with plans to open a residential building for adults with autism in early 2019. ABC also provides home therapy plans.
While Quinn is proud that her organization positively impacts about 200 people with autism at any given time, it’s the quality of the care that matters most to her. After all, for Quinn, it’s personal.
“The company serves my son, so the better we are at what we do and delivering our services, the better my son does,” she says.
Diving in to help
Although the Center for Disease Control today estimates that 1 in 59 children is identified with autism spectrum disorder, Michael’s diagnosis in 1995 was considerably less common at the time. Quinn quit her career in telecommunications and began studying Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which uses evidence-based methods to improve social behaviors in children with autism.
After starting an internet support group for parents of children with autism, Quinn became Indiana’s first ABA provider at a business that began in her backyard pool.
Michael is in the nonverbal subset of autism and does not speak. But Quinn, a former swimmer, observed that her interactions with Michael improved when she took him into the pool.
Quinn began giving swim lessons to area kids with autism at her home. The water inspired similarly encouraging responses from others.
“I think kids with autism are drawn to the water, so that connection is important,” she says.
Quinn’s business grew from those early swim lessons to ABA therapy sessions in her basement to the 2004 opening of the first Applied Behavior Center for Autism. Today, ABC offers specialized plans, including behavior consultation, speech therapy and occupational therapy, tailored to each patient’s age group and specific needs.
And the pool remains an important element. Researchers at the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University recently reported that children with autism drown 160 times more frequently than typically developing peers, so pool safety is vital.
ABC’s Carmel location has an indoor pool that features the only special needs swim program offered by an ABA provider in Indiana. ABC is also beginning a relationship with area YMCAs to implement swim programs for individuals on the autism spectrum at those facilities.
“It’s not a money-maker, it’s an expense,” Quinn says.
“But giving back to the community is so important.”
Data and development
Quinn’s belief in the value of ABA therapy has been a constant as her business has grown well beyond anything she initially envisioned.
“ABA is just good teaching,” Quinn says. “You’re reinforcing certain behaviors to get those behaviors again.”
Parents who suspect their child may be on the autism spectrum can utilize ABC for an in-house diagnostic evaluation, with little to no wait time. ABC also has its own research department composed of board-certified behavior analysts to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments and ensure each child’s unique needs are being met.
“Every task that they learn is analyzed,” Quinn says. “Everything has to be taught to mastery, and then, once it’s mastered, every week we do maintenance so they’re not losing those skills. It’s very data-driven, very methodical. That’s why it works.”
The Applied Behavior Center for Autism works with those from 18 months to 26 years old, but the upcoming opening of the residential unit will initially expand that impact to 12 older adults, with more to come.
Quinn’s son Michael, living with low-functioning (or severe) autism, will never be able to live on his own. As such, she has great understanding of the importance of this new offering.
“This is going to take us to the next step,” she says. “You can only grow so fast and do so much, but we’re trying to help as many people as we can.”
Building something special
Since 1997, the Applied Behavior Center for Autism (ABC) has provided important programs for Central Indiana children diagnosed with autism. But in Indiana and elsewhere, it is difficult to find resources and living spaces for adults with autism unable to live on their own.
That’s why Sherry Quinn, ABC’s president and founder, is expanding to a location that will initially serve as a residential facility for 12 adults, with more beds to come. The facility is expected to open this year, and ABC’s relationship with Huntington, which assisted with the financing, made it possible.
“I’m so thankful for Huntington, because they’ve grown with us,” Quinn says. “They believe in us. They’ve done a fabulous job. They’ve been competitive on interest rates and timeframes and really come through for us.”
As a result, ABC is in a better position to provide and innovate for adults with autism in need of quality care.
For more information, visit appliedbehaviorcenter.org.