ADAMS — This is probably no shock, but modern parenting isn't always smooth sailing. Add in an autism diagnosis, and charting a course for your child can rapidly become downright daunting.
You need access to a team of professionals, who employ the latest proven methods to help your child with autism to navigate and thrive in the world.
Benchmark Behavioral Solutions — serving Pittsfield and Greenfield in Massachusetts, and Brattleboro and Bennington in Vermont — has just earned two credentials from agencies that assess quality and delivery of care.
Firstly, Benchmark has been designated as a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. The designation is given to organizations whose staff have completed autism training and certification through the international agency's continuing education and training programs.
And second, the Adams-based agency has been accredited for two years by Behavioral Health Center of Excellence for dedicated, continuous improvement in applied behavior analysis, the primary means by which agency clinicians help children learn.
Benchmark teaches young people with autism about daily life — from tying shoes and washing hands to shopping at a grocery store and checking out a book at a library — through a combination of training, assessments, one-to-one in-person interactions and/or telehealth services. The company believes that to reduce problem behavior, you have to teach the appropriate replacement. As such, Benchmark has a strong emphasis and focus on using positive reinforcement for building new skills.
Because Benchmark has been using telehealth to work with families for a couple of years, ramping up these kinds of services for the COVID-19 pandemic was seamless; it's really up to how comfortable you are with the technology.
Services from Benchmark are paid for primarily through health insurance. Through its arrangements with health insurance companies, Benchmark can provide more than 30 hours a week of service to children with autism.
Three main tools, practices
Employing applied behavioral analysis, Benchmarks' in-person services tend to be its primary tool. In simple terms, Psychology Today describes ABA therapy as designed to improve specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, academics, adaptive learning, personal hygiene, domestic care and job competence. Because there's a lot of one-on-one interaction to work toward these goals, the company follows the latest federal and state guidelines, as well as internal best practices, to keep staff and client families healthy.
The second learning model that Benchmark uses is a social skills group, where kids can practice their new techniques in speaking, listening, and looking for and responding to social cues. There are also family-based workshops, which aid in moving practice into reality. Nowadays, these can be done online.
The third most important avenue of service delivery is parent consultation, in which a board-certified behavior analyst will coach and work with household adults so that reinforcing activities — such as potty training or basic communication, for example — can be implemented into a child's routine at home.
A few service models
Benchmark typically uses one of three service delivery models, tailored to and depending on child need: focused, to work on one or two developmental delays; comprehensive, with 20 hours or more a week for multiple developmental delays, as well as community-based activities; and transitional, for those children who have met their goals, and are transitioning back into school and their community. The latter model involves more parent training with a senior-level Benchmark clinician or perhaps having a staffer act as a school aide to assist with the child in class.
Referrals to Benchmark come mostly from the medical world — largely family doctors — but others find ways to the center's help, too, says Chris Robakiewicz, executive director of Benchmark.
"It could be a pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist or a family Googling and searching for these kinds of services," says Robakiewicz.
From infant to 18
Services are applicable for young people up to the age of 18, but Robakiewicz says most clients tend to be a lot younger, with 15 months being the youngest, while an average program participant is about 5 years old.
The staff work with children across a full spectrum of the disorder. "That's uniquely us, that we have the ability to work with a wide range of issues. All of our clinicians have experience in everything, from general education issues or serious behavioral issues," says Robakiewicz.
For teens and tweens, a lot of the learning has to do with social skills, Robakiewicz says. That might mean learning how to buy a meal, play with a toy or engage with other kids. In the age of the virus, it also might mean a desensitization plan for how kids with autism can become accustomed to seeing friends, family and strangers who are gloved and masked, which can be frightening for some children.
"When you walk into a house with a mask, kids with autism will respond in a different way," says Robakiewicz. "A lot of it is teaching basic tolerance skills."
Because Benchmark is an essential service, employees continue to engage in up-close and personal encounters with their student learners, many of whom cannot wear masks.
"We've had to make a lot of compromises," says Robakiewicz, adding that Benchmark does its best to accommodate families as they need it while keeping everyone healthy and safe.
The ability to convey information to anyone can be a challenge, but Benchmark therapists and their assistants tend to build special bonds with the children in their care.
"All of our therapists have created amazing relationships with kids and parents," says Robakiewicz.
Aimee Erskine has been with Benchmark for nearly three years as one of the agency's board-certified behavior analysts. Formerly, Erskine taught children through applied behavior analysis services in residential facilities and schools.
From her first experience teaching inside children's homes, Erskine could see clearly where she was needed most.
"In working in the home with these children and their parents and siblings, I am able to see growth and progress in the children and see the parents becoming engaged in the treatment," says Erskine.
At Benchmark, collaboration is essential, while maintaining autonomy in delivering services and witnessing phenomenal progress.
"A majority of our children are young, and with our services progress toward functional goals is incredible," says Erskine.
Benchmark looks to feedback from third parties — such as the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCES) and the Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE) — to make sure that it is using the best evidence-based practices and the most successful methods of service delivery.
For example, in awarding its accreditation, the BHCOE first conducted a wide-ranging audit, including interviews with Benchmark's clinical leadership, in-depth on-site observation, a detailed staff qualification review, an anonymous staff satisfaction survey and an anonymous consumer satisfaction survey.
"The accreditation also demonstrated that we have a very high caregiver satisfaction rating. That's one of our strengths," says Robakiewicz. "This accomplishment is a direct reflection of the commitment our compassionate team has to providing ethical treatment for our clients and their families."
Whenever Benchmark works with a family, it's a team approach: There is a behavior technician who works directly with the child with autism, as well as supervisors, including a board-certified behavior analyst. In Massachusetts and Vermont, state licenses come through the Board of Registration of Allied Mental Health and Human Services Professions.
There are less-than-effective practices out there, Robakiewicz says, and the high ratings at the Adams center set it above and apart from the others.
A regional resource
A Berkshire County business since 2015, Benchmark employs about 20 staff members, with offices at 110 Columbia St. — although many staff now are working remotely across the whole region. While there are early intervention offices in Central and Northern Berkshire, Benchmark offers focused resources and personnel on childhood autism needs, and can work in concert with state-sponsored childhood development services that families are already receiving, such as physical, occupational, speech, food or other therapies.
"The services that Benchmark Behavioral Solutions provides to children with autism helps them, their families and their community," says Robakiewicz.
Benchmark wanted to lead the way in the Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont region, which for Robakiewicz meant being accredited by BHCOE and the IBCCES board.
"Our programs are designed to help professionals understand the varied perspectives and needs of individuals with autism and provide a multidisciplinary background on best practices. We're excited that the team at Benchmark Behavioral Solutions has taken this step to further their commitment to ongoing learning and quality of care," said Myron Pincomb, chairman of the IBCCES board, in a prepared statement.
To find out more, call 413-684-8619 or visit benchmarkaba.com. The international agency also created CertifiedAutismCenter.com, a free online resource for parents that lists certified locations and professionals; each organization listed on the site has met certified autism center requirements.