COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Marissa Allen (left) and Dana Pelligrino (right), co-founders and CEOs of Lifetree Behavioral Health, show off the play area of their new center, located at 16587 Enterprise Dr. Suite E in Three Rivers, which specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis services for individuals with autism.

Lifetree Behavioral Health brings autism services to Three Rivers

THREE RIVERS — About 1 in 44 children in America are identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as of 2018, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

In St. Joseph County, there are not too many places for children and young adults with ASD and their parents to get assistance and learn skills for later in life, but one new center in Three Rivers is looking to bring those services to the local area.

Lifetree Behavioral Health, located at 16587 Enterprise Dr. Suite E in Three Rivers, is a new center offering in-home and center-based Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services for individuals with autism from 0-21 years old, as well as learning opportunities for their families.

The center started forming back in October, founded by Dana Pelligrino and Marissa Allen, who both have doctorate degrees in behavior analysis and have almost 30 years of combined experience in the field of ABA and working with individuals with autism. They officially moved into their space in early February. They chose to set up in Three Rivers, because they said there weren’t too many options for families of people with autism to get services in the county.

“It seemed like in St. Joseph County, there aren't a lot of options. There's another center in Centreville for six and under, for younger children, so not only is there only one center, but there are no centers for school-aged kids or teens,” Pelligrino said. “We wanted to provide that and be in an area so families don't have to travel so far. We've heard families who had to travel all the way to Coldwater to get services. We thought this was a good location.”

Lifetree focuses on individual ABA therapy, helping younger kids with autism reach a number of developmental milestones, such as imitation, making eye contact, play skills, and most importantly, functional communication.

“That’s the first thing we work on, if they're not talking yet, we ask, ‘what are some ways to back up communication?’ We can teach sign language or we also use the picture exchange communication system, and we teach them handing someone a picture, but get their basic needs met,” Pelligrino said. “Usually if we address communication first, you see improvement in other areas.”

She added there are a number of other skills younger kids with autism will learn once they approach school age, such as safety skills, self-advocacy, self-help, social skills, following routines, school readiness, community safety, participation and focused learning activities.

For older kids and young adults with autism, the center helps them hone and learn the daily life skills they need, such as social skills. Pelligrino said they are looking to form a social skills group where they can come in and make friends.

New clients at Lifetree, Pelligrino said, will have an initial assessment done to determine what skills they will be working on with that particular individual and make a recommendation for a weekly number of hours of therapy. Every six months, an assessment will be done to see how the individual is progressing.

“Kids can range anywhere from 10 to 40 hours within a week. There's no, ‘this is when it starts, this is where it ends,’ because every kid's different, but a lot of kids are in ABA for a couple of years,” Pelligrino said.

Allen said ABA is the main method Lifetree uses for each of the different programs they teach, which is evidence-based and empirically supported, coming from a form of psychology called Behavior Analysis.

“What we do is take those principles and we apply those to the community. The principles stay the same, they may look differently with how we apply them to the individual programs. It's a lot of sitting at the table type instruction, but also natural environment teaching is another way we go, so when children are playing and stuff we do programs to teach them how to play. When there's opportunities to go up and interact with other children, it's based on their lead,” Allen said.

“We call them learning opportunities,” Pelligrino added. “ABA is known for having a lot of learning opportunities in a short amount of time, so if a kid comes for therapy for two hours, we're doing several learning opportunities a minute, having 100 different opportunities to learn things.”

Allen said ABA also uses positive reinforcement when teaching.

“We try to find activities that they are specifically motivated to do, and use that within teaching, coming from that positive reinforcement approach to teach,” Allen said. “The idea is we want kids to want to come here to learn and have a fun time at the same time.”

Family involvement is key as well, and Lifetree works with families to teach skills that can be used to continue learning with their child or young adult. Family Support and Training, as it’s called, is a requirement for services. Allen said it’s important to have parents involved in services.

“It's really important for maintaining skills as kids are learning them, because we're only seeing them for four to six hours a day, but the parents have them at home all the time. To be able to practice these skills and have those opportunities for practice is going to be so important,” Allen said. “That's why we really want to have families on board and be able to work with those families together to make sure those programs don't get missed or those skills stay maintained.”

“We're working with the kids but we're also teaching families strategies that they can use at home,” Pelligrino added. “We're helping them work through the diagnosis. It can be overwhelming or life changing when you hear that your child has a diagnosis of autism, and we want to be here to support them through that, because there's stages you go through when you learn that.”

Pelligrino said Lifetree provides services under Medicaid for individuals with autism from 0-21, working with Community Mental Health in Centreville, while most commercial insurance covers ABA services through age 18. Outside of those age ranges, they said they are willing to work with individuals of any age with autism.

“ABA therapy can be expensive, so ideally our clients will have Medicaid or commercial insurance. If they have a plan that doesn't cover ABA, we'll guide them through that. Funding can be a big hardship for families, and we'll help for free to try to navigate that world,” Pelligrino said.

The center is hosting an open house on Thursday, March 3, which will feature snacks, games, and both Pelligrino and Allen around to answer questions about what they do. They said they hope to start working with clients the following Monday.

They are also searching for behavior technicians, with preferences of at least a high school diploma or equivalent as well as experience working with children. However, if someone isn’t familiar with ABA, both Pelligrino and Allen say they will offer intensive training.

“We want to bring jobs to the community; it's a very rewarding job because you see kids progress,” Pelligrino said. “If you see them at the start of services, you see them through, you see that progress, and it's a great job if you like helping others.”

Overall, both Pelligrino and Allen say they hope to provide a safe, preferred and meaningful service experience to individuals in their homes and their surrounding communities and center. They also hope to expand to other counties in the area in the future.

“We would love to be able to serve as many clients as possible in SJC, for sure. Beyond that, it would be great to go to other counties where there's a need also, maybe surrounding counties. As our quality is maintained and we're maintaining that strong clinical, then we can expand,” Allen said.

If people want to learn more information about Lifetree, they are asked to call the center at (269) 244-4172 or email dana@lifetreebh.com. The center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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