by Josh Field
Puzzle Box Academy Provides Answers, Options and Choices
The signs may be there but oftentimes go undetected or undiagnosed before a parent, relative or friend notices something “different” with the child. It may start as a lack of smiling or making eye contact and later manifest itself in no verbal communication or interest in playing with adults or other children.
The scope and scale of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is broad, but experts agree early detection and behavioral intervention therapy can drastically affect long-term outcomes. Fortunately, screenings today based on parent questionnaires of children at their 1-year well-baby check can help pediatricians detect ASD kids. In spite of the growing awareness of autism – diagnoses have increased to one out of every 50 children, a more than 120% increase in the past decade – detection, on average, occurs after a child reaches age four.
Pamela Holz knows this as well as anyone – her son Loki was diagnosed with autism soon after turning two – and has made it her lifelong mission to help other families facing similar challenges. “It’s all about letting people know their options so they can make better choices for their children,” said Pamela, who left a career as a healthcare negotiator to go back to school to earn a degree in early childhood education and elementary education to find the answers that her son’s pediatrician and teachers could not provide.
Dream of a New Tomorrow for Children with ASD
For the past few years, developing Puzzle Box Academy has been the passion of Pamela and her husband James, with Pamela focusing on the school’s curriculum and James, an attorney and former NYSE stockbroker, finding investors to help fund their dream.
Offering an integrated education and behavioral therapy program, Puzzle Box Academy is a private school serving kindergarten through 6th grade children impacted by ASD and other developmental delays, e.g. ADD/ADHD. Working in small classroom settings with no more than five children per teacher, Academy students receive a customized academic plan, integrating proven, research-based therapeutic strategies into every learning task. Besides the low student/teacher ratio, each developmental grade (or classroom) has a certified special education teacher, plus at least one teaching aide, a board-certified behavioral analyst (BCBA), and a registered behavioral technician (RBT).
“We find that our students respond best to shorter (15-minute) subjects (compared to the average 30-minute sessions at most public elementary schools),” explained Academy Principal and Director of Operations Monique Todd. “For example, we’ll do 15 minutes of science, than rotate to 15 minutes of math, than 15 minutes for reward, than 15 minutes of art. Keeping our students consistently moving through different stations keeps them on task and allows them to learn structure and order.”
The Academy, which celebrated its official grand opening in May 2016, is located in Palm Bay, where it offers an over-sized occupational therapy room, “green” outdoor playgrounds, classroom libraries and iPad labs, and large classrooms. The current term, which starts August 10, has spots for 65 children and was nearly full (as of the time this article went to press). The school’s capacity will expand to 95 students in the term beginning in January 2017.
Unlike the public school setting, Puzzle Box offers year-round schooling at 7 hours per day. There are three 2-week breaks throughout the year, as that is about the maximum length of time before their students need to be reintroduced to some of the routines and behaviors gained.
“Our approach is not just to teach the students but their families as well so they can reinforce the behaviors when the child is away from the classroom setting,” explained Pamela.
Tuition is $14,250 per student per year, however based on the student’s Individual Educational Plan (IEP) matrix score, a good portion of this may be covered through the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. According to Pamela, “Our average family’s out-of-pocket expense is about $200 per month.” This is significant when you consider that early diagnosis and intervention can reduce lifelong costs of an ASD child by up to two-thirds.
Puzzle Box also offers a before- and after-school programs, summer camp and additional behavioral therapies based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), including occupational, speech, language, music, art, behavior, social cognition, daily living practice, and peer buddies, through its Kaleidoscope Interventions clinics and outreach programs. Additionally, the Academy maintains a comprehensive network of complementary service providers and partner agencies to which they can refer families whose children may need therapy or help in other areas not available through Puzzle Box.
Retraining the Brain
The key, as Pamela explains it, is getting to ASD children as young as possible while their brains are still developing.
“Applied behavior therapies utilize consistent intervention, repetition and reward to teach students and basically retrain the brain to improve social and educational behavior,” explained Pamela. “It’s significantly easier to do this when the child is just beginning to form behaviors than years later when these behaviors have become habitual.”
“We all have ‘stemming’ behaviors, like tapping our feet or playing with our hair, that we do when we’re nervous or stressed,” Pamela continued. “In a child with autism, this behavior may be disruptive or inappropriate so we help them recognize this and retrain them to express themselves in a more societally acceptable way.”
For children on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, one-on-one clinical therapy is recommended before integrating the child into the Academy, where behavior therapies are combined with education and social interaction.
One of the more challenging aspects of raising an ASD child can be the social stigma of being “different” or “socially awkward.” In a public school setting, it’s not unusual for kids with autism — even those who may be intellectually advanced — to be bullied by others, oftentimes without even knowing they are being picked on. “My son thought he was popular, that he had friends because other kids were talking to him, not realizing they were teasing him or singling him out,” explained one student’s mother. Other kids withdraw or don’t want to go to school because of the way others, including teachers, may treat them.
At Puzzle Box Academy, students are trained in social interaction, acceptance of others’ differences, sharing and making friends.
“Our son has gone to other schools in the past. Many times he has begged to stay home. That’s not the case with Puzzle Box Academy. Since attending PBA, he actually WANTS to go! He has made significant improvements in his social skills. He loves the staff because they genuinely care for the well-being of each student,” said another student’s parent.
As a mother of an autistic child herself, Pamela can empathize with these challenges and revels in all the victories – both small and large – for each and every student who attends Puzzle Box.
“We are averaging two evaluations per day for new students,” said Pamela. Although the Academy can only accommodate 95 students at capacity, she said, “I want to help them all.”
Puzzle Box Academy is located on 2180 Julian Avenue NE in Palm Bay. For more information call (321) 345-0861 or visit PuzzleBoxAcademy.com. Kaleidoscope Interventions, located at 1855 Hibiscus Blvd. in Melbourne, can be reached at (321) 345-4232 or visit ThePieceFits.com to learn more.