Trick-or-Treating: Yes, They Can!

By Dr. Breanne Hartley, BCBA-D

With Halloween coming next week, many parents who are affected by autism may be hesitant to have their children participate in the traditional trick-or-treating festivities.

Many parents I work with at Little Star Center have shared that they want nothing more than for their children to “just be a kid” and participate in all of the fun activities. However, their hesitancy often stems from uneasiness that their child may be too overwhelmed by the whole process of getting dressed into a foreign costume, and having several social interactions with each ring of a new doorbell.

However, don’t ever think “my child can’t do this.” Your child can do this!

Even if it doesn’t appear that your child shows any interest in Halloween festivities, (possibly like your other children, who have been extremely excited to wear their costume for the past several weeks) you can teach your child with autism how fun Halloween really can be. You can do this using an Applied Behavior Analytic teaching method, called pairing (which is the behavioral word for “associating”). The one part of the trick-or-treating festivities that truly makes it Halloween, is wearing a costume. In order to get your child prepared for strolling the neighborhood in costume, start providing some learning opportunities ahead of time. Several days before Halloween, begin dressing your child in their costume, while simultaneously allowing him to play with his favorite toy or eat his favorite snack. At first, just short periods of time of wearing the costume will be sufficient just to get your child accustomed to wearing something different. During that first time, glance at the clock and determine approximately how long your child tolerated having their costume on before they began to tug at it and want it off. This time period will tell you how long to keep it on the next time.

If the first occurrence was a time period of two minutes, then make a mental note to take the costume off at about one minute and 30 seconds the next time. You don’t want you’re your kiddo to exceed his or her limit. Then, over time, with continued practice, gradually increase the amount of time that you keep the costume on. Just remember to “pair” fun things (toys, snacks, movies) with wearing the costume, each and every time. Eventually, your child may begin to learn that Halloween and dressing up in a costume can be quite enjoyable.

Happy trick-or-treating!

Dr. Breanne Hartley is a clinical director at Little Star Center. 

Family thankful for Indiana ABA therapy services at Little Star Center

By Clayton Sheese, Little Star Center dad to Jacob, 8

How long has your child attended Little Star Center?

Since March 2011

What has been the biggest challenge in finding services for your child? 

Our biggest challenge has been finding insurance coverage for ABA therapy. We were lucky to get a child-only policy from our insurance carrier when Little Star-Lafayette opened — and before the insurer stopped offering such plans. Then, over the years, the premiums increased and we were paying double the original cost.

As Jacob became school-aged, our insurance carrier pushed for him to attend his area school and cut his hours at Little Star in half. We went through all the appeals. The first was handled by Little Star, but was denied. Second appeal also was denied. Shortly after learning a second appeals board overturned the previous decisions, we learned that decision only covered the first appeal, forcing us to begin the process all over again!!! Now, we have to go through the application process every six months.

Jacob is now in school half days. He has settled in pretty well! We feel he needs more time at Little Star in this stage of his life.

How has Little Star Center provided support to your family? 

Little Star was there with us through the appeals process, and we are appreciative of that. During the appeals process, Jacob was able to stay at Little Star 40 hours a week! We are very grateful that Little Star found a way for Jacob during our challenges with insurance! We feel ABA is the best thing for Jacob! He has made leaps and bounds!

 You could have chosen other ABA facilities for your child. What makes Little Star Center stand out from other ABA facilities? 

Little Star was our first choice. We went to Carmel and toured the facility. When the Lafayette center opened, everyone was so helpful and kind!

For what are you most grateful at Little Star Center?

We are grateful for everything Little Star has done for Jacob. He has come so far since he has been at the facility! It has been a long road! We have some challenges ahead, but we know Little Star will be there for Jacob and our family!

Kids with autism can enjoy Halloween


It’s that time again when little ghosts and goblins roam our neighborhoods and homes are decorated with spider webs, skeletons and all things scary. It’s Halloween, which could be an overwhelming time for our children with autism.

Here are tips from Autism Speaks to make Halloween fun for your child with autism:

Before Halloween:

  • Create a visual story about what Halloween may be like for your child using pictures or drawings. This will help your child prepare for the day’s activities.
  • Try on costumes before Halloween. If the costume is uncomfortable or doesn’t fit right, it may cause unnecessary distress and ruin their fun.
  • If your child does not like their costume, don’t make them wear it.
  • Instead, talk about the situation and try to uncover the reason why they don’t like it. After you talk with your child, they may gradually get used to the costume. Have them wear it for short periods of time and at increasing intervals over time.
  • Consider a Halloween costume that fits over your child’s regular clothes, such as butterfly wings or capes.
  • Practice going to a neighbor’s door, ringing the bell or knocking on the door to receive candy.

Halloween Day:

  • Know your child’s limits and do only what he or she can handle. For example, if your child is not comfortable trick-or-treating for long periods, start by going to three houses.
  • Take your child to an activity in the community, such as a school festival or a neighborhood party, where the child is already comfortable and knows people. Partner with family and friends that your child likes.
  • If you are giving out candy at your home, give your child the option to also give a piece of candy. During the day, practice greeting people and giving out candy. If your child is afraid of going out at night, plan indoor or daytime Halloween activities.
  • Remember, Halloween is supposed to be fun. Don’t let it stress out your child or you!

If you have additional questions about preparing your child for Halloween, please contact your child’s Little Star Center program manager. Families not enrolled at Little Star should contact Vince LaMarca, BCBA, Little Star Center clinical director.

Thank you, Little Star Center for quality ABA services in Bloomington, Indiana

The following comments are from a mom with a newly enrolled learner at our Bloomington location.

As a parent of a child recently enrolled in the Little Star program, I would describe my experience in this process as nothing short of exceptional!

Enrolling your child in an intense therapy program can be extremely stressful for your child, as well as for yourself as the parent, and the other members of your family. Little Star’s staff removed these stresses for all of us.

The staff was professional, knowledgeable, organized, efficient, and, above all, compassionate throughout every phase of this process. They look at your child and their family as individual entities with specific needs and they work with you in order to make it possible for your child to receive these much-needed services.

I had many concerns from previous experiences with other centers and the many challenges facing me as a parent in trying to seek out ABA services for my son. They have worked with me tirelessly and patiently to facilitate services and to meet every need of my son and our family. They are genuinely compassionate and committed to providing the best services to the children and their families! We are forever indebted to this wonderful organization!

Make play dates fun, interactive for kids with autism

By Vince LaMarca, BCBA

The guiding principles of quality play dates are to keep it simple and make it fun by focusing on activities that are already familiar to a child with autism and quitting while you’re ahead.  Making it fun includes focusing on play activities that both children enjoy and allowing choices throughout the play date.

Here are tips for planning a successful play date for your child:

Plan ahead – Setting up for a play date should start with the question, “What play skills does my child with autism already possess?”  Starting with activities in which a child with autism is already familiar will help keep play dates successful because he/she will already be familiar with the basic structure of that play. Also, don’t forget that the peer coming over to play will have his own preferences.  Make sure to find out in advance what activities that child likes to play and have some of those available as well.

Keep it short and simple – It’s better for a play date to start short so that both children are interested in coming back for more rather than trying to keep children engaged for prolonged periods of time.  Initial play dates that lasts 30 minutes to an hour are more likely to be successful than longer play dates. For a one hour play date, having four to six activities is often enough.  For example, you might include 10 minutes of free play inside where children do whatever they want, 10 minutes of facilitated play inside where you attempt to have each child interact with each other, 15 minutes for a snack, 10 minutes of structured activities like a board game or hide and seek, and a final 15 minutes playing outside, facilitating interactions when possible.

Reward interactive play – Children often begin with parallel play. Parallel play allows for opportunities for interactive play.  Adults do not have to force every parallel play situation into interactive play. Adults must watch for both extremes: no interactions occurring between the children and all interactions being contrived by an adult which then cease when the adult is not present.  By encouraging interactions on occasion, rewarding the children when the interactions occur, and helping to bridge the gap between interactions, adults can help keep the play between children positive.

Let Batman do the dishes! – Adults often have a hard time remembering how children play.  During one play date with a peer, the adult was attempting to encourage a peer to come over and play with a child with autism who was pretending with a kitchen set.  The peer was busy putting on a Batman costume.  The adult said, “We can play Batman later, first we need to put our food in the refrigerator before it gets cold and do the dishes.”  To which the peer responded, “Batman can do the dishes!”  The purpose of play dates is to help your child with autism navigate the creative, spontaneous world of play.  Don’t allow your preconceptions as an adult to halt the interactions that may be right in front of your eyes.

Vince LaMarca, BCBA, is clinical director at Little Star Center. See more of Vince’s tips about play dates in the September issue of Indy’s Child (page 36). Read it here.

The gift of communicating with my son

By Brett Eastwick

I have been asked many times if it is harder being a parent to a child who has autism. It is not an easy question to answer. Having the perspective of raising children who are more typically developing and functioning, you would think it would be easy to determine how difficult or easy it is. It just isn’t.

There are areas that, of course, are easier. Communication stands out as a major area that is easier as a parent (until they become teenagers, that is. After that, good luck). Being able to communicate directly and effectively makes life easier for your child and you. Simple things like hearing “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m happy” allow those around a child to take care of his needs and wants. Now, imagine not having that ability. Imagine that part of your brain being shut off, or only able to speak French around people who do not, or, perhaps even worse, being mute. And your hands won’t move. That is what it can be like for a person with autism.

Teaching a child how to communicate is, to say the least, a challenge. I have learners find echoics, whether just words or phrases, difficult to repeat or even aversive. Prolonged eye contact may also be a challenge for them. So much time and effort may result in being just as frustrating for both parties. I have asked myself, “Why can’t I teach my son to speak?” He can make sounds, imitate them, show you a person or item if you ask him to do so. Why can’t he speak?? The answer is easy. He has autism. He is unable to communicate the same way I do, the same way his mother and siblings do. The solution then, is clear. We have to learn how to communicate in a way in which HE is able to learn.

My son, Wyatt, uses ASL(American Sign Language)to make and maintain contact with the verbal world. It is what allows those around him to access his world. ASL is as real a language as English, Spanish or any spoken language. This is what he was able to learn to communicate with us. Why wouldn’t we use it to communicate with him? Some people ask me if I wish Wyatt could speak, if I wish he could just say, “I love you, Dad.” He does that every day. His hands are graceful and fluent. His communication is direct. Wyatt means what he says. Sign language allows his means of communication to be all that much more effective.

Brett is a therapist at Little Star Center.

Good-bye Alabama, hello Indiana ABA center


By Jamie Vandiver

Shortly after my son Camden’s diagnosis, I began checking into different therapies.  Living in a small, rural Alabama town, I quickly found my options and resources were limited, and almost non-existent.  I knew that in order for my son to receive the therapy he desperately needed, my family would have to move out of state.

After discovering Indiana has the necessary mandated insurance laws, I inquired about ABA centers in the state.  I chose Indiana since I have family members living within the state.  Luckily, this is how I learned about Little Star Center. I quickly scheduled a tour. I knew as soon as I completed the tour, it was the place for Camden. So, without hesitation, we packed up and moved 500 miles to Lafayette!

Little Star turned out to be a true blessing!  From the very first day, Little Star went above and beyond to make us feel welcomed. Every morning, as soon as Camden entered the building, he was greeted by his therapist(s) with a big warm “hello”.  Every morning made Camden feel right at home.  It touched my heart to see his eyes light up every morning.  The enthusiasm the staff carries cannot be matched!  I knew they truly cared about my son, and his progress.  They were always delighted to work with my son.  And, the atmosphere was always warm, inviting, and fun.

I liked the fact they included me, as a parent, in meetings.  They worked with me to develop a personal goals plan for Camden.  They also taught me many skills to use at home. I now have the skills needed to help Camden during his most difficult times.  The ABA therapy he received has improved his behavior tremendously.  He acquired many skills needed for everyday living.

Camden truly made great strides during his time at Little Star.  He has since transitioned successfully to a Pre-K program back in Alabama.  We often think about Little Star, and keep in contact with many of his friends and therapists. I can honestly say that Little Star was there for us each step of the way.  Above all, we were blessed to find an ABA center that truly understood the dynamics of our struggles.  They helped turn Camden’s struggles into achievements.  I will always give credit to Little

Star, along with the great people that make up their staff, for giving us hope, and for laying the foundation for Camden to have a better and brighter future!

Thank you Little Star!

Celebrating our amazing Ryan

By Lisa Striewe 

As a mother of a teenage boy with autism, I am often in awe of just how far we’ve come.  Ryan was diagnosed with PDD, NOS when he was 3 ½ years old. He had very little language and extreme anxiety about the world around him.  The prognosis, according to the doctors, was not good.  I went home with guilt, fear and worry of what his life would be like and how I, his mother and advocate, could help him.

Eleven short years later, we’re in the kitchen.  Ryan is making dinner.  Tonight is his night to do so.  We take turns and he’ll make dinner while I do the dishes.  Other nights our roles are reversed.  But this particular evening, while he’s making dinner, he expresses some anxiety about going into high school next year.  As I listen to him, I gather that while some anxiety is coming from the prospect of high school, the majority of it is stemming from what that means.  In his mind, he needs to prepare and be ready to be out on his own, only a few short steps after starting high school.  My mind goes back to my son, at 3 years old.  Who would have known that we’d come so far and that now the anxiety is about if he has what it takes to go to college, get a job and live on his own or …yes, it’s coming….if he will find a girlfriend, get married and have a family?

As we continue our discussion, we broke the concerns into categories and agreed that while he needed to have faith in his abilities, there were some skills that we could work on to make him feel more confident about where he’s going and skills that would get him prepared for the life that he wants.  We created short-term and long-term goals.  Short-term goals included better study skills since he knows that high school and college will require more studying and project work, money and budgeting since he wants to make sure that he has enough money to do all of the things he wants to do. He wants me to help him find a part-time job this summer because, according to him, “it will help me become more dependable to those around me”.

His long-term goals include learning to drive and developing more tolerance for social interactions in preparation for dating when he is appropriately aged to do so.

As we finished our meal, I realized that the future is waiting for Ryan.  We don’t know what it will bring, but we do know that if we listen to each other and work together, he will be closer to reaching his goals.  And I, his mother and lifetime advocate and cheerleader, will be right there celebrating every step, every goal reached and every new goal set.  After watching my son for the last 14 years, I know that he is capable of achieving everything he desires.  It may take a little longer, may take a few extra steps or a few false starts, but he will do it, because that’s who he is.

Lisa Striewe is human resource and accounting coordinator at Little Star Center.

Celebrating our beautiful son, Anthony

By Joanne Kehoe

I have four children. Anthony, my oldest, has autism.

When Anthony was a baby, I used to think about milestones and when he would reach them.  He sat up really early. He started rolling over and crawling early and got right up and started walking and running right on time.  His teeth came in when they were supposed to, much to my chagrin as a nursing mother.  He ate food from a spoon at six months.

I don’t know when I thought it strange that he wasn’t talking. I mean, he DID talk — a little.  He could count pretty high with me signing the numbers. He could say colors that I would sign. I have a video of him saying, “E, I, E, I … ho,” while playing with a tractor that played the Old McDonald song.

At 18 months, I took him to the pediatrician for his well-child checkup and explained that he wasn’t talking and that other kids in playgroups who were his age were flying by him. The doctor said to me, “Look how smart he is. Keep reading to him and keep talking to him.” So, I did.  I read a LOT. I talked to him a LOT.  I remember walking with Anthony around the block by our house after it snowed, and I thought to myself that if I fell and bonked my head, I would be in trouble because Anthony isn’t going to call for help.  He never called, “Mommy!” from his room. That was one thing I thought was strange.

Finally, we started Anthony in First Steps, the early intervention program. Three therapists came one morning to evaluate him. That was the first time I looked at Anthony as a stranger might see him and it didn’t look good!  They said he should have developmental, occupational and speech therapy.  They were throwing the book at him.  At the end of his involvement with First Steps, and before he moved on to therapy at the public school, he was diagnosed with autism.  By then, we knew it was coming, but it still sort of stung when the psychiatrist asked, “Has anyone ever mentioned autism to you?”

That was almost six years ago, and we have undergone a lot of attitude adjustments since then.  Anthony has had to get used to three little sisters, one louder than the next!  We have had to adjust our attitudes and our expectations. We still celebrate milestones with Anthony – so many I couldn’t even begin to count. They are just different than the milestones that I thought we’d be celebrating, and, Lord knows, they are sometimes later than I thought they’d be reached!  But he is so smart, and so wonderful, and we all love him so much – and I don’t mean just his family, but all his therapists and everyone who comes in contact with him. And those milestones mean just as much and probably more than the milestones that I thought he’d reach all those years ago when I was narrating my life and waiting for that first word.

Joanne Kehoe is a mom of four, including Anthony, a learner at Little Star.


Wyatt and I are in this wonderful world together


By Brett Eastwick

Someone once said never underestimate what a parent is willing to do for his child. Parents of children with autism know this maxim all too well. It is not easy being a parent, even with unlimited resources, family members, and a supportive spouse. But bring into the fold a diagnosis of autism, and suddenly you feel as if the world has swallowed you up.

And any parent who has gone through this five years ago, 10 years, 20 years ago, it was even more difficult. Today, the level of awareness is high. It seems as if everybody knows someone that is on the spectrum. That has not always been the case, nor has it always been that people accept our children for who they are. We all have experienced “the look.” The look of confusion as to why our child is making odd sounds, why they are flapping their hands, why a sudden noise sends them into hysterics. We are at fault. They just need to behave. They need more discipline. We are coddling them. I have heard all of this before, as I am sure you have. It makes you want to cry. It makes you want to lash out. It makes you want to hide away from the world.

I have lived in the world of autism for 10 years. My son, Wyatt, brought me into it. He is why I left my previous career as a veterinary assistant and became an ABA therapist. He could not speak. Learning was aversive and almost impossible for him. He could not communicate with us. I refused to let him stay trapped in his own world by himself.

The methods of verbal behavior analysis did not take him out of that world, so much as it allowed me to enter into it with him. Wyatt has hundreds of signs, and knows how to compel those around him to engage him that way. After six years of continued therapy, he has learned so much. But this is where the rest of the world still lags behind. It is not over. He will not be “cured”, especially since he is not sick. He has autism. He will always have autism. I will always be a parent of a child with autism. I do not think about the magic day Wyatt will be like typically developing children, when I no longer work with children of autism. Wyatt and I are in this wonderful world together. We all are in this community of parents with autism. And I would not have it any other way.

Brett Eastwick is a therapist at Little Star Center. His son, Wyatt, has autism.