Little Star Center training director Tim Courtney appreciates the special health needs of children affected by autism. In 2012, Little Star Center of Carmel celebrated its 10th year of providing a sensory-sensitive environment for children with autism.
At Little Star, children receive individualized guidance using applied behavior analysis. This method uses positive reinforcement, repetition and prompting to encourage positive development of life skills. The U.S. Surgeon General’s office has endorsed this method as the most effective treatment for autism.
“The level of intensity and supervision by competent professionals is certainly one of the primary variables related to (this method’s) effectiveness,” Courtney said.
Little Star’s atmosphere fosters support and family training. Students are called Little Star Learners to highlight their active participation.
Outings to new environments familiarize students with a location, the staff and tools of the trade. An outing to a dentist’s office, for example, can ease student concerns about dental appointments.
A National Institute of Health report estimates 10 to 14 percent of the U.S. population endures some degree of dental phobia. For some with autism, the lights, sounds and smells associated with a dental visit can pose a further challenge to maintaining oral healthcare.
A Little Star family working with Dr. Kevin Beadle at Carmel Pediatric Dentistry understood those phobias well. Their child’s anxiety about dental procedures posed extreme difficulties during exams.
“This was very interesting, because by and large, this particular child was typically very calm,” Courtney said.
Fortunately, Beadle’s residency at Children’s Hospital of Michigan included training for the needs of children with autism.
“When Tim from Little Star approached me with the idea for the desensitization program, I was enthusiastic to participate,” Beadle said.
Adapting a procedure developed in the 1950s, Beadle and the Little Star staff designed a desensitization program geared toward easing dental fears.
“We successfully desensitized three different children so they could receive dental services from Dr. Beadle,” Courtney said.
First, Beadle visited Little Star Center to teach proper brushing habits. Stories and stuffed animals added some fun, while students handled real toothbrushes and the dentist’s surgical mask.
Public relations manager Lisa Adams led the Little Star group on an after-hours tour of Carmel Pediatric Dentistry. Students explored the Alice in Wonderland-themed waiting room before their name was called for their practice appointment.
Children tried out dental chairs and viewed equipment in muted plum and lime green exam areas.
“We let the children come when the office is closed,” Adams said. “We let them get used to going through the steps.”
“The program is open to all children who have anxiety and could benefit from desensitization,” Beadle said. Insurance providers often cover such programs as clinical consultations. “We have encouraged other dentists to initiate similar programs.”
Little Star has taken it a step further and tailored this method for other needs.
“We use desensitization intervention to address phobias related to hand dryers, haircuts, artwork, mannequins and statues,” Courtney said.
Little Star offers individualized guidance for social settings such as grocery stores or restaurants as well.
“This is a very important service to families of individuals with autism,” Courtney said. “We are very proud of the successes we’ve had in helping children with autism overcome various anxieties.”
Little Star Center earned the Autism Society of Indiana’s Excellence in Direct Care award in 2011. The center’s executive director, Mary Rosswurm, has been appointed to a fourth term on the Indiana Commission on Autism.