By Ava Bullard
When I was two years old, my parents thought I would never speak. Two years later, I called out to my “mama” for the first time. At the age of nine, I called on legislators at my state Capitol to do more to help children like me.
I have autism. If it weren’t for a therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis, I never would have been able to speak, let alone speak up for myself or other children with autism.
Every person with autism deserves access to ABA – a scientifically proven therapy that helps children communicate, socialize, and approach daily tasks. All too often, whether because of an insurance company or the shortage of qualified providers, it’s difficult for us to get the therapy we need.
ABA is not a one-size-fits-all approach but an individualized plan that aims to meet the specific needs of a child.
Here’s what my plan looked like. I spent 30 minutes working at a desk with my therapist, then we transitioned to the floor for 30 minutes of play, and then we went outside for 30 minutes. This cycle repeated for eight hours, five days a week. I learned to communicate, first with hand gestures and then with language. I learned how to play and socialize without melting down. I had a resource to turn to whenever I felt anxious or overwhelmed.
Securing access to ABA was not easy. In 2006, my pediatrician told my mother that ABA was the “Cadillac version” of autism treatment. Good luck finding and paying for a provider, especially where I lived in rural Georgia.
Our health insurer sent a letter informing us that autism therapy was an “excluded coverage.” They wouldn’t cover speech therapies or occupational services, let alone ABA.
But my family didn’t give up. My mother found a therapist in South Carolina who came to our small town to work with me. My family was able to raise enough money to cover the cost of care out of pocket. Within just a few weeks, I had learned to communicate rather than cry. I could convey my wants and needs in a way others understood.
Our experience prompted my mother to press the state legislature to make ABA accessible to every child with autism. When I was old enough to help, I joined my mother to lobby for legislation mandating that insurers cover ABA.
I remember how devastated I was every time our bill didn’t pass. Finally, in 2015, Governor Nathan Deal signed Ava’s Law, which requires health plans in Georgia to cover ABA and other evidence-based treatments for every child with autism.
While all 50 states now require insurers to cover autism therapies in varying capacities, barriers to access still remain.
Long waits prevent many kids from receiving the care they need. Even when kids have good coverage, they may not be able to find an ABA clinic with availability because inadequate rates from insurers make it hard for clinics to attract and retain staff.
When I was first diagnosed with autism, the doctor told my mother that I’d be in special education my entire life. After just two years of ABA, I joined a mainstream pre-kindergarten classroom. ABA allowed me to excel and eventually graduate in the top 5% of my high school class and head to college. As I attend class, I’m grateful that ABA gave me the freedom to chase my dreams and choose my future.
Ava Bullard is a student at the University of Georgia.