Autism in Motion (AIM) Clinics, a startup founded by a University of Chicago alumni, is set to provide autism therapy to children in rural communities throughout the U.S.
The startup won first place and $45,000 at the University of Chicago’s Social New Venture Challenge in May and has been expanding ever since. The company already operates a clinic outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, where it provides care for 24 children with autism.
AIM strategically chose this area, after their research showed that Arkansas was one of the states with the biggest need for autism therapy services, but the least equipped to offer them. “There’s a lot of kids with autism, particularly in rural areas, that don’t really have access to effective therapy,” said George Boghos, CEO of AIM Clinics.
Boghos immigrated to the U.S from Syria when he was 12 years old. He didn’t speak any English, so he relied on teachers and other community members to help him adjust to his new environment. By founding his company, Boghos is paying that help forward.
His mission? Give children with autism a chance to develop, progress through school, potentially go to college, and live productive lives.
As part of that mission, Boghos and his team plan to open two more facilities; one will be close to Little Rock and the other in Fayetteville.
AIM Clinics, which is one of Chicago Inno’s 2018 50 on Fire recipients, is currently working on securing more seed funding to expand not only in Arkansas, but also to other states, including in rural areas of Illinois.
Boghos said Chicago is served relatively well by existing providers. However, two hours away from the city, “it starts to look a lot like Arkansas in terms of the dynamics and the access to therapy.”
AIM clinicians specialize in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, an evidence-based, data-intensive method that gives each child individualized care plans. ABA can reduce tantrums and aggression and help children develop social skills.
“This is a very, very intensive therapy, where on average, kids are receiving therapy for 15 hours a week, and it’s proven to really help the communication and socialization skills of kids with autism,” Boghos added.
Making ABA therapy available to everyone
There are 32 clinicians working for AIM. Five of them are senior supervising clinicians; the rest are junior-level therapists that do one-on-one therapy with patients.
Usually, during an ABA therapy session, the therapist is offering lots of positive reinforcement to a child. This can come in the form of praise, tickles, hugs, high-fives, opportunities to play, and even sometimes edible treats. Watch this video to take a glimpse into an ABA session.
A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that kids who received ABA showed significantly higher IQ and adaptive behavior scores than the ones who received only public school special education classes. Out of 21 children receiving ABA, 17 started frequenting regular classes after three years. By contrast, only one out of the 21 children in the control group was included in regular education after the same period of time.
In order to begin therapy services, most insurance providers require a prior authorization and prescription for ABA therapy from a child’s doctor. AIM is in-network with a handful of insurance companies like Arkansas BlueCross BlueShield, UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, Cigna, TriCare, and QualChoice.
The company wanted to make sure that families who are not covered by insurance are still able to learn from their experts through community and parent trainings. “They can interact with our clinicians and learn some of the techniques of the therapy so they can implement it in the home themselves,” Boghos explained.
AIM’s work comes at a time when autism is on the rise in the United States.
Two possible explanations? There is a greater awareness of autism than ever before and those affected are less likely to be misdiagnosed with other conditions, such as intellectual disability.
One in 59 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder, which is four times more common among boys than among girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A diagnosis of ASD includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately such as autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger syndrome.