Like most great partnerships, Nick Chappell and Diana Wolf were brought together from very different locations and experiences. In 2011, their shared passion for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and the possibilities it has for children diagnosed with autism allowed them to team up and create Verbal Beginnings, a home- and center-based company.
ABA therapy focuses on the principals that explain how learning takes place. The field has developed many techniques, such as positive reinforcement, for increasing useful behaviors and reducing behavior that may interfere with learning. Nick, a graduate of Northeastern University, was first inspired by such behavioral work through a college job at a summer camp for special needs children. Diana, a University of Maryland Baltimore County alumna, found the same professional spark while working at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
It is estimated that one in every 68 children in the United States is affected by autism. The life-changing role that ABA therapy can play for these children was not lost on Diana and Nick. They started Verbal Beginnings with the goal of building a community within a larger network of clinicians—this would provide support that would allow professionals to increase the quality of care for families and create a greater demand for high quality ABA Therapy.
Nick and Diana sat down with MDBizNews to talk about their work at Verbal Beginnings and what the future holds for this ever-changing field.
What makes Verbal Beginnings different from other learning programs?
Nick: No two children who are diagnosed with autism are alike. Our therapy is often taught in a 1:1 ratio and is individualized for each child with the goal of making meaningful and socially significant changes. The skills that we teach can improve a child's ability to communicate, develop behavior management skills, become independent with daily living activities, develop age appropriate social skills, and make improvements in feeding.
Where do you find your services are most needed in Maryland?
Diana: Services for ABA therapy are high across all areas in Maryland. Because ABA therapy is the number one recommended tool for children diagnosed with autism, many parents are choosing it as the primary treatment for their child. Prior to 2015, access to ABA therapy was cost prohibitive and remained inaccessible for many families in need. Following the passage of numerous bills in 2014, access to ABA therapy immediately became tangible to many families.
Who can Verbal Beginnings benefit? What are the differences between the various programs you offer?
Nick: We have several programs that are designed for children at different stages of development. Our largest program brings one-on-one ABA therapy to each child's home, where our therapists implement individualized treatment plans in the child's natural environment. We have also developed social skills groups located in various areas of Maryland that are designed to meet the socialization needs of these children. Here, participants are paired with peers of similar ages and have the opportunity to learn and practice skills that will help them fit in and be more successful in social groups.
Diana: We recently opened a large Early Intervention Center in Columbia that meets the intensive needs of children between the ages of two to seven. The program provides children with an average of 30 hours per week of therapy and integrates one-on-one ABA therapy, social skills, speech and language pathology, occupational therapy and family training. The program supports a wide body of research indicating that the child will be more successful if therapy is started at an early age.
Where is Verbal Beginnings headed? What are some goals for the future?
Nick: Verbal Beginnings is always expanding. We have grown exponentially over the past six years and plan to continue to do so in the years to come. Our more immediate goals are focused on recruiting, the education of families and professionals, as well as opening more centers across Maryland for accessibility.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in launching this business and how have you overcome them?
Nick: The biggest challenge we have faced with launching this business is keeping up with the demand for services. There is a high demand for services and the level of experience required to provide them effectively limits the number of qualified professionals. We have tackled this obstacle by developing numerous internship opportunities for interested professionals that allow them to work intensely with highly-trained mentors who provide the education and experience necessary to successfully pass our professional competency assessments. In September 2016, we hosted a cohort and provided scholarships to staff seeking educational opportunities to obtain licensure in the ABA field.
What successes inspire your continued work?
Diana: We have a lot of success stories that we hear on a regular basis. The best part of our field is that a child's progress is closely monitored, so we see significant improvements every day. Now and then we hear a story that brings tears to a parent's eyes.
Specifically, we have worked with families who were told by other professionals that their child will never talk, but within a few months of ABA therapy, they begin to hear their child speak for the first time. One situation that stands out with us was when a set of parents heard their child say "I love you" for the first time.
For more information about Verbal Beginnings visit verbalbeginnings.com.