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Austin autism center plans to help train more specialists by reducing student loan debt

Melanie Worix, a board certified behavior analyst at Action Behavior Centers, works with Colter Browning. Action Behavior Centers has created a program to help its employees pay off their student loans and seek advance training to encourage more people to go into providing therapies for people with autism.

When Colter Browning was 2 years old, you couldn't reach him, says his mother Jill Browning. "He just wasn't there. ... It was almost like he wasn't human."

He didn't make eye contact; he didn't respond to his name. 

Colter was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old, but Browning says, they noticed differences in him earlier. 

Kids with autism need intensive, early therapy intervention including Applied Behavior Analysis, which uses positive reinforcements and repetition to work on communication, social interaction and other skills. 

Colter started doing Applied Behavior Analysis therapy at Action Behavior Centers in Austin 40 hours a week. Browning switched jobs to get better insurance that would cover the treatment. 

Now at age 4, Colter "is a completely different kid," Browning says. "He's come out of this bubble he was once in."

He makes eye contact when you call him and he laughs with you; he says a few words and uses a speech device for other words.

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Colter Browning uses an iPad to improve his skills while working with registered behavior technician Monae Thomas at Action Behavior Centers.

The barrier to helping more kids like Colter, says Hersh Sanghavi, the CEO of Action Behavior Centers, is the number of people trained to provide the therapy.

"We have thousands of families in the state of Texas that want and need these services, but the biggest constraint is we don't have enough master's level board certified behavioral analysts," he says. 

That's a master's level degree that then requires a certain number of hours of supervised experience before the analyst goes before a board to earn certification.  

The board certified behavioral analysts supervise other technicians in the field, who are working 1 on 1 with kids. 

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A report from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board found that the need for board certified behavioral analysts increased each year from 2010 to 2019. From 2018 to 2019, it was an 80 percent increase. And in Texas, the number of job postings for board certified behavioral analysts went up 46 percent from 2018 to 2019. 

Sanghavi recognized that student loan debt and the cost of tuition was playing a huge role in why people weren't pursuing this higher level degree and certification. He reached out to universities in Texas that have programs for this degree to reduce the costs of tuition or add scholarships for qualified candidates.

It's still tough to go from being a technician to becoming a board certified behavioral analyst, he says. It means working 70 to 80 hours a week between work and school to do it, "but you have an ally by your side," he says.

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Then Sanghavi started looking at the student loan debt being carried by Action therapists at all levels. Action was able to create a program to refinance their student loan debt to lower payments. It also offered $50 every month to employees to go toward paying down their student loans. 

That might not seem like much, Sanghavi says, but employees are able to shorten the amount of time it takes to pay off their loans, which reduces the interest they are paying.

Colter Browning works with Heather Ansohn, a behavior analyst technician at Action Behavior Centers. His ability to communicate has improved tremendously since he started more than two years ago.

Tara Taylor, regional clinical director at Action Behavioral Centers in Austin, had student loan debt from graduate school. "I was throwing as much as I could at it," she says, "but it doesn't chisel away." She still had $18,000 in debt from her 2011 degree that wouldn't be paid off until 2037. 

She applied to Action's new program and will pay it off in less than five years and is saving $10,000 in interest.

"This is life-changing for me as someone who needs to be prioritizing planning for retirement," she says. 

Sanghavi estimates that this program is costing Action less than 18 cents per hour, and it will pay for itself in employee retention.

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In the first three weeks, 300 employees enrolled and Action has $7 million in student loans being refinanced, he says. 

Sanghavi says through working with schools to reduce tuition and student loan refinancing, Action, which has centers in Texas, Colorado and Arizona, has made a pledge to help 3,000 professionals to get to board certified level. If each board certified behavioral analyst supervises eight technicians, that will add space for 24,000 more kids to receive therapy. 

His goal is to have no one on a waiting list to receive therapy. 

Colter Browning works with Heather Ansohn, a behavior analyst technician at Action Behavior Centers, which recently created a program to help employees pay off their student loans.