DENTON (UNT), Texas — Many kids are picky eaters, and 6-year-old Ryan Lingo "takes the cake." So when he reached to eat the orange muffin a few weeks ago, his parents were more than surprised.
"We were astonished," said Lucia Lingo, Ryan's mother. "This is a child who wouldn't eat anything except goldfish crackers, pizza and prosciutto sandwiches. No vegetables. No fruits. As a mom I'm always concerned about his nutrition."
Food got yummier for Ryan because of Yummy Starts, a healthy eating program geared for kids with autism spectrum disorder. The program is one of four behavioral intervention services offered at the Easter Seals North Texas Autism Treatment Program, a collaboration between the University of North Texas Department of Behavior Analysis and Easter Seals, the world's largest provider of services for people with autism.
Easter Seals North Texas integrates the research of Shahla Ala'i-Rosales and Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, UNT associate professors of behavior analysis, and that of their graduate students and alumni across four service areas:
- Sunny Starts — strategies for parents of toddlers diagnosed with autism
- Yummy Starts — food expansion program for appropriate, healthy eating habits
- Comprehensive Intervention — 20 hours per week of applied behavior analysis services across all skill areas
- Focused Intervention — Eight hours per week of applied behavior analysis services therapy targeting primary areas of need
"Our partnership exemplifies the UNT approach to community engagement," said Ala'i-Rosales. "Our students engage in meaningful service learning, our partner gives us important feedback that stimulates practical and compassionate scholarship, and our entire community is strengthened."
The team of research associates and student therapists regularly meets with families to review and assist with cases.
Yummy Starts focuses on creating happy, socially appropriate mealtime experiences. Program director Sara Weinkauf said typical challenges are associated around food for kids with extreme selective eating habits, and especially for kids with autism like Ryan.
"Mealtimes can be aversive, isolating experiences for some families," said Weinkauf, a graduate of UNT’s behavior analysis program. "In Yummy Starts we don’t instruct the children to eat specific foods or force them to eat. Rather, we teach the kids to engage with foods in a positive context. With this approach, we have seen excellent results in children trying new foods and participating with others at mealtime."
For Ryan, this could mean squishing blueberries instead of eating them, chewing a carrot and spitting it out, or just smelling a pickle. Interacting with food is encouraged, regardless of whether it is swallowed.
At six weeks into the program, Ryan's parents are seeing a difference.
"He’s touching more foods, tasting more foods," said Lingo. "Because of Yummy Starts he's curious to engage with foods he's typically avoided."
Ryan has graduated to the next stage in the program, which involves a behavior analyst teaching mealtime strategies to Ryan and his family twice a week in their home. He will transition into the Focused Intervention program this summer to learn specific skills for success at school in the fall, such as how to raise his hand, stand in line and wait his turn. This program has already helped build his vocabulary up to four- and five-word sentences such as "Please pass the ball" and "I want to go now." And it has helped him channel repetitive, self-stimulatory movements such as hand clapping, spinning and disruptive vocalizations into appropriate behavior, or to stop if asked.
Lingo said she is grateful for all that Ryan has learned through the program. She now works for Partners Resource Network to help other parents successfully access services such as Sunny Starts. Lingo said Sunny Starts gave her and her husband, Barry, critical support when Ryan was 2 and they didn’t have many treatment options.
"Parents of children with autism need coping strategies," said Lingo. "It can be overwhelming. I was numb at first. I cried all the time. But I'm the kind of person who needs to find solutions. UNT resources at Easter Seals North Texas have given us quality services, top notch training and parent advocacy. More importantly, they have given us results."
Now Ryan is an avid swimmer. He'll start baseball soon, and horseback riding with his big sister Sam.
"Ryan is doing great and has made excellent progress in all areas," said Weinkauf. "We look forward to seeing continued progress, both in the Autism Treatment Program and in school this fall."
The UNT collaboration with Easter Seals North Texas began in 2008 and is offered in Carrollton, Dallas and Fort Worth thanks to the faculty at UNT and grant support from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. More than 60 UNT students and alumni have worked in the program through the years as interns, full-time employees, board-certified behavior analysts or directors.
This news release was written by Julie West.