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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

Understanding Behavioral Treatment for Autism as a Northwoods Center Expands

The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has been going up over the years.

Locally, there is a center in the Northwoods that aims to help children on the autism spectrum by using something called behavioral treatment… and they’ve recently expanded to Rhinelander.

Mackenzie Martin has the story.

The space located in Rhinelander’s Riverview Hall looks like a typical preschool with toys and books scattered about. There are some things that help you realize it’s a space for kids on the autism spectrum, though.

"Here's just a little quiet area," says April Leanna. "Sometimes our kids can get a little dysregulated, so we have an option for them to just go chill and relax."


April Leanna is a board certified behavior analyst who owns and operates Starlight Center for Inclusions. For a long time, the center was just located in Eagle River, but a few months ago Leanna opened up another location in Rhinelander. She has a staff of seven and there are about twelve kids that they’re either working with or getting read to work with.


“So we would have three kids here at a time, and two to three kids in Eagle River at a time,” she says. “And for every student, we have to have one staff. It’s all one on one.”


The work that Leanna does at Starlight is called applied behavior analysis behavioral treatment and it’s supposed to help kids prepare for the real world and continue to help them as they age. It comes down to understanding why kids with on the autism spectrum do what they do.


“I have a tendency to try and understand why kids are doing something,” Leanna says. “So our approach really focuses on behavior as a science and that there’s always a reason for our behavior. We don’t just randomly go around doing things. We behave to get things or to share things or to communicate.”


As an example, Leanna says that if she knew a kid liked to play with a certain toy, she might put the toy in a closed box that an adult would need to open. She would then encourage the child to ask her to open it. Using the child's natural motivation, the child would then be encouraged to ask for what they want, which is oftentimes hard for children on the autism spectrum.


Leanna says the Northwoods is an especially collaborative environment. She frequently hears from local schools who are reaching out for help with a student, or an organization that wants to make an event more inclusive.


Leanna only started Starlight in 2016, but she’s been doing in home treatment for kids with autism spectrum disorder in Wisconsin since 2004. A lot of what she learned during that time immensely shaped her business plan.


“While I was working in the homes," she says. "I was really paying attention to what wasn’t working and what was."


Leanna said she would go into children’s homes and do one on one behavioral treatment, the same kind of treatment she does at her own center now. She loved it, but she wondered what would happen when the kids got older and they needed to learn social interactions with other kids. She also felt limited with the range of activities she was able to offer since she had to bring everything with her, and she spent a lot of time driving.


“So I actually googled autism schools, autism… just trying to find somewhere where there was a school or center,” she said. “And I found a center in North Carolina that did that.”


So she moved to North Carolina and worked at a center out there. Once there, she knew bringing kids together in a shared space was what she wanted to do. So she moved back to Wisconsin, got a Masters in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Applied Behavior Analysis, and took a business class through Nicolet College. With help from the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation, she started Starlight.

She says the need in the Northwoods for these kinds of services is great. The next closest behavioral analyst is in Wausau.


“It’s so hard,” she says. “We have so many families where their children are not receiving as many hours or they’re not yet receiving services because we don’t have the staff and we don’t have the capacity to serve as many.”


Right now Leanna’s max for clients is three kids at a time at each facility until they license as a daycare - which they’re working on - but first they have to increase their staff. Then they have plans to expand at the Rhinelander facility.


Leanna says it used to be a lot harder to get behavioral treatment in Wisconsin though.


“Until 2016, insurance didn’t cover behavioral treatment, which is what we do,” she says. “So unless children were able to receive services through a community support waiver or private pay, a lot of kids didn’t have behavioral treatment.”


In the Northwoods, there are two schools opening in Minocqua this fall for kids on the autism spectrum. Lakeland Star School will serve students in grades 7-8, while the Lakeland Star Academy will include grades 9-12. Leanna says these schools are great for kids who haven’t received behavioral treatment.


“But, my hope,” she says. “My personal hope is that we start getting the children working with us and doing behavioral treatment when they are four, five, just freshly diagnosed, in that we could increase their chances of being included in the public schools if that is their choice.”


In the end, April Leanna says part of doing her job well is that sometimes she’s out of a job.


“The coolest thing is when the kids don’t need us anymore,” she says. “It’s just amazing. We’ve had a couple of children who’ve had 30-40 hours a week for a couple of years and then they go on and they don’t need me anymore. It’s the saddest thing and the happiest thing ever because I realize they can go and they can be involved in their school and the community and they don’t need me but that’s the best that you can hope for.”


You can learn more about what April Leanna does here: https://www.starlightcenters.org/


This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Some music for this story came from Podington Bear


This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

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