Parents offer ‘free’ autism help; signs of change?

Part one of a two-part series. Next week will focus on responses from Knox County Schools officials, Board of Education reps and other parents.

KNOXVILLE — Favorable responses were heard from Knox County Board of Education representatives during its workshop discussion (no votes) on allowing Applied Behavior Analysis therapists into Knox County Schools classrooms that would, according to proponents, greatly improve the learning process for children with autism.

Two Farragut parents who have sons with autism are among what one of these local parents said was “over a hundred parents in Knox County (who) are dealing with this same issue.”

Christina Doss has a son who is an eighth-grader at Farragut Middle School and AIison Pasternak has a seventh-grade son at FMS.

Pasternak and son

“The most effective way is to have it done in the child’s common setting, or typical setting, which would (include) school,” Pasternak said about ABA.

During school hours, “My son has approximately 20 hours per week of ABA therapy,” she said. “That entire 20 hours per week is one-on-one with an (registered behavior therapist).

“My son, I’m taking him out of school two full days a week so he can go get therapy at the ABA center,” she added.

Although these absences are excused, with 36 full weeks in a school year, that’s 72 days of school her son will miss during 2022-23.

“Last year he was going three days a week, so he missed 108 days,” Pasternak added.

Combining these two years together, that’s missing “an entire school year,” the mother said.

However, “It won’t cost them anything” to allow the autistic students’ ABA therapist to serve during KCS school hours, this mother said. “Our insurance already pays for it.”

After speaking with Susan Horn, Knox County Board of Education District 5 representative Monday, April 17, “I was very disappointed,” Pasternak said.

“… I had spoken at the school board meeting in February when she was there.”

Overall, “We have not received a straightforward answer as to why they don’t want this to happen,” she added. “I do know that Knox County Schools in general is resistant to have any outside providers in the schools.

“They had a big fight not too long ago about private-duty nurses” before “parents were finally allowed to have their private-duty nurses,” she added concerning children “with severe medical issues.”

Doss and son

“I’ve scheduled his ABA around school,” Doss said. “I tried many times to get an ABA therapist in there … but they said they wouldn’t allow it. My son’s 14 now; I’ve been fighting this since he was in first grade.

“I’ve given up,” she added. “I hate to say it, but they give you the runaround.”

Starting in primary school, “It was just me at the time, I didn’t have anybody else,” Doss said. “Not a whole lot of people were fighting at that time. I felt all alone. It was just me up against the school. … I gave up.”

About the virtues of having the child’s personal ABA therapist on hand, “They know how to help a child with anxiety,” Doss said. “And he could have had the one-on-one person with him all the time.”

Moreover, “throughout his school year, all they’ve tried to do is cut back on his assistance because they don’t have the people to do it,” the mother added. “There are days this (school) year where he’s gone without an assistant.”

Unassisted activity, at least with this eighth-grader, resulted in him wondering off into places at the school where he shouldn’t have been, Doss said.

“My child is being scolded for this,” she added. “… I’ve offered so many times (saying), ‘I have an ABA therapist who is willing to come to the school.’ And I’ve been turned down every time.”

Because of his misuse of the Internet on his smartphone — with no supervision — “He got an in-school suspension for three days,” the mother said. “I asked him, ‘where was your aide?’ He answered, “’I didn’t have an aide, mom.’ I’m thinking, ‘this is ridiculous.’”

However, Doss said she “hasn’t fought it this year” for a good reason.

Despite all the expressed difficulties and lost potential from not having their ABA therapist at FMS, there’s a silver lining — at least in this school year.

“My son is so happy and doing so well in school this year,” the mother said.