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Clinic's methods could get boost from proposed law

A proposed new Georgia law could have larger implications on the Board Certified Behavior Analysis program and clinic at the University of Georgia College of Education.

Ava's Law would require health insurance plans to cover the evaluation, assessment, testing, screening, diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder using evidence-based practices, which includes behavioral health treatment. The law, which would require up to $50,000 a year in coverage, was approved by the state Senate last year and is now before the House Insurance Committee.

"That's going to open up more options for parents with insurance," said Kevin Ayres, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Special Education and director of the Board Certified Behavior Analysis program. "And, it's going to increase the need for people who are qualified to do that."

As a result of the BCBA coursework, the College of education also houses the Applied Behavior Support Clinic, which works with the community while providing training for students. Now in its second year, the clinic is an increasingly popular option among parents and caregivers. Both the program and the clinic use the theory of applied behavior analysis, previously known as behavior modification, to apply interventions to change behaviors.

The program at the College of Education is only one of two in the state offering this kind of training, with options for students at the master's and doctoral levels. The BCBA program is for enrolled students at UGA who are looking for additional training with their degree, and they gain experience working in the College of Education's Applied Behavior Analysis Clinic. Some students may even receive reduced tuition thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

"We got a lot of interest from UGA students," said Ayres, adding that the 20 seats available in the program each year fill quickly. "We get inquiries from across the state."

Behavior analysts began working with children with autism in the 1960s, and since then the field has developed a variety of techniques to build useful skills in people of all ages.

Today, applied behavior analysis is recognized as a safe and effective treatment for autism, according to the organization Autism Speaks, and more than 30 states have passed legislation similar to Ava's Law. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal included coverage for autism treatment for state employees as part of his most recent budget proposal submitted to the legislature.

One in 68 children is affected by autism, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, with more children diagnosed with autism every year than AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined. In reaction to these statistics, and as a way to help promote and fund the BCBA Clinic, members of the Athens business community are planning a fundraiser on April 8 at Ciné in downtown Athens. The event, Automatic for Autism, is sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce's LEAD Athens program to create an endowment at the Applied Behavior Support Clinic to help offset costs to families.

While there are an array of options for treating autism, Ayres added that in recent years the method of applied behavior analysis is showing promise.

"As greater emphasis has been placed on scientifically validated treatments, this has risen to the top," he said. A recent list from the National Research Council backs that up. Applied behavior analysis, he said, was at the top.