Program helps patients reach potential

Betsy Lopez Fritscher

Southern Illinois residents Michelle Daniel and her husband, Jeff, experienced the hardest part about being parents last summer. Together, they made the decision to send their 14-year-old daughter, Megan, who has autism and obsessive compulsive disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, more than 350 miles away from their Mount Carmel home in an effort to save her life.

“I can hardly talk about it,” Daniel said. “You can only imagine. I had to tell myself we were either going to keep putting her in hospital settings that weren’t very good and give her medications that weren’t working, or we were going to make a choice that could really help her. We knew it would be hard, but the program the Goldie Floberg Center has isn’t about giving up. There are so many people working.”

Last month, the Floberg Center unveiled the New Horizons Behavior Treatment Program. The program’s aim is to assist families with in-home behavioral services, while aiding those with similar needs at the center. Daniel’s daughter was receiving the same treatment offered in the new program even before it launched.

Social skills group

On Wednesday, the center rolled out a social skills development group for adults and youth with autism and other behavioral needs. John Pingo, a board-certified behavior analyst at the center, was the force behind the new program and group.

“We want to provide and develop a really robust treatment program in our area,” he said. “(This program) can provide families, schools and organizations with the hands-on approach to say ‘here’s how we do this.’ We want the parents, families and teachers we work with to be co-therapists. We want them to become the people who keep the behavioral teaching moving forward. To get the full gains of behavioral analysis, you need to have that dynamic.”

Daniel is also the mother of a 16-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism.

She said it’s hard for her family to live so far away from Megan, but they are comforted by her success.

“When we first admitted her, she had become so obsessive,” her mother said. “We were at a point when we knew she wasn’t thriving and couldn’t deal with it anymore. She was spending six to eight-plus hours on her bathroom routine, and there was nothing you could do to get her out of it without a difficult battle.”

In December 2007, Megan was no longer attending her middle school, which frustrated both of her parents. It was impossible for her family to get her to go without fighting. Now, Megan is enrolled in Easter Seals Therapeutic Day School in Rockford, and her mother is happy to see she is slowly reaching her potential.

Now thriving

Pingo said during the last eight months, Megan has thrived.

“It’s a tough decision all around to admit your child, but the family has been very pleased,” he said. “When we first started working with her, we’re talking in excess of three hours just to get through a typical self-care routine in the bathroom. ... Now due to the therapy, we have her down to a much more reasonable amount of time, maybe 15 to 20 minutes.”

While the program is new, the Floberg Center continues to provide services to the 53 children and teens in its residential program, 33 adults in its adult program and one individual who is receiving home-based therapy.

The financial burden of the services Megan receives is eased as the Illinois Department of Human Services pays for her treatment, her mother said.

‘A huge success story’

“I think Megan is a huge success story, and I think she’ll continue to succeed, and our goal is to get her to come back home,” she said. “We have two insurances, we’re not independently wealthy and private insurance wouldn’t pay for this. As a parent, you find a way to pay for it. There’s nothing that she ever needs and doesn’t have.”

Megan’s mother is grateful to the center. She said the Floberg Center was one of two places in the entire state that offered the behavioral treatment her daughter needed. While she’d like to be closer to Megan, she said the time will come when Megan will be ready to come back home.

“We need awareness out there on this,” she said. “In your area, you have more to offer, which we don’t have in southern Illinois. It will take some time. We debated whether to bring her home at Christmastime, but they’ve done such great work. It’s like you don’t want to mess up the progress they’ve made. Someday, we’ll get her back home.”

Tools to reach potential

Whether help is in the home or at the center, Pingo said, the center’s goal is to help provide the tools so that patients reach their potential.

“If you think about it, no one is born knowing how to make friends and sustain friendships. It’s all learned behavior,” he said. “What we find is when we work on issues like communication and teach them the effective and appropriate ways to engage people and get attention, we see a lot of these contextual inappropriate issues melt away. These are all things you can accomplish with behavior therapy.”

Betsy López Fritscher can be reached at bfritsch@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1377.