Stride Autism Centers to open Lincoln location next month

Brad Zelinger has two identities: One shaped by his background in the business world and the other shaped by his sister’s autism disorder.

He combined his knowledge in the two subjects to create Stride Autism Centers less than two years ago, and has opened several locations across the Midwest. The latest location will open in Lincoln near 84th Street and Pioneers Boulevard on Dec. 13.

The preschool-like center will provide Lincoln with what Zelinger describes as the gold standard of treatment for children with autism ages 2-6. It’s called Applied Behavioral Analysis. Each child enrolled at the center receives a customized plan based on in-person assessments by licensed clinical staff. The number of school days, or therapy sessions, the child attends will depend on their medical necessity, and can be up to five days a week.

The center maintains a 1:1 therapist-to-child ratio with at least one board certified behavior analyst per center. Communication and social skills are at the core of what they work on, Zelinger said, because the kids they work with often face behavioral challenges in potty training and feeding goals, so these skills help them communicate what they need.

“For example, kids come into our program nonverbal or minimally verbal,” he said. “And even if they have some issues of speech, they need more support; to request things they want in order to have their needs met and better express themselves.”

Ryhanna Singleton is the lead board certified behavior analyst at one of the Iowa locations. She said one of the biggest improvements she sees in students who attend the center is a greater ability to communicate, whether that be with verbal words, picture icons, or sign language. It is important to give the kids a voice, she said.

“It helps to decrease the heat, because they’re getting what they need and what they want, they’re able to tell people what they need,” Singleton said.

The model consists of two types of therapies. One is a highly structured, individualized therapy, and the other is a more naturalistic therapy. The structured therapy is often delivered with just the therapist and the child working on building skills for the child’s long-term independence.

“Particularly when kids are younger and have not built up a lot of skills, they need to rapidly acquire those skills in a distraction-free environment,” Zelinger said.

In contrast, the naturalistic therapy introduces children to slides and swings and tricycles and all sorts of fun equipment that they can engage with.

“And as the child is learning and playing, we find teachable moments, to kind of help them gain skills in a more naturalistic manner,” Zelinger said. “A child may find it really exciting to use the swing, but they don’t know how to request anything, let alone a swing. We can teach them to start requesting access to the swing, and then build upon that skill to start requesting all sorts of things that they need.”

Zelinger said that is one of the reasons Stride decided to provide a center-based model for therapy.

“So that children could interact with other children in a physical space that sort of looks and feels like a preschool, and gives kids an opportunity to develop those social skills that are so critical for their long-term success in the next phase of their evolution,” Zelinger said.

Behavioral analyst Singleton said the need for centers like Stride is extremely high. She has parents who drive an hour and a half to her center so their kids can get the therapy.

Zelinger said he wishes his family had access to a similar center when he and his sister were growing up. His sister, currently in her 30s, has an autism disorder, is nonverbal and needs a lot of support to have her needs met.

“When she was a young kid, access to ABA therapy wasn’t widely available,” he said. “So my sister never received this, and I feel like if she actually had a resource like this, she’d be a lot more independent than she is.”

Zelinger, who plans on opening another center in Omaha in 2022, said he uses personal experience as his motivation.

“It’s really motivating for me to build something and go to communities that have no access (to centers like Stride),” Zelinger said. “To really give families like my own the opportunity to overcome a lot of these challenges.”

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Brad Zelinger has two identities: One shaped by his background in the business world and the other shaped by his sister’s autism disorder. He combined his knowledge in the two subjects to create Stride Autism Centers less than two years ago, and has opened several locations across the Midwest. The latest location will open in…

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