When the world was shutting down two years ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Springtide Child Development opened its center on the first day of state-mandated quarantine in Connecticut. Now, with five centers total, including a brand-new facility in Shrewsbury, Springtide is continuing its mission of focusing on not only children with autism, but also the entire family, in addition to helping them navigate through life after lockdown.
An integrated autism care center, Springtide takes a 360-degree approach to children with autism, so that each family receives services targeted to their needs and schedules. The company considers itself a partner in a family’s journey and provides services for children ages 2 through 18 who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The centers in Massachusetts and Connecticut specialize in play-based, interactive applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which is the “gold standard” treatment for children with autism, said Springtide co-founder and CEO Jia Jia Ye.
Part of the inspiration for Springtide came from Ye’s childhood. She and her family lived in Salt Lake City and had a close friend who had autism but had to travel to Boston to work with a therapist there. “There were literally zero therapists in the whole state,” she recalled.
Finding those services — and then having insurance provide payment — was often a source of frustration for families, and then combine that with the stigmas surrounding autism at the time. “It was really hard to get care. It was really hard to get therapists,” Ye said. “In the past, that was incredibly expensive for families. Even if you did have a diagnosis, if you didn’t have a way to address it, what value is that diagnosis?”
As autism rates have increased over the last several decades, Ye said, so, too, has access to services. Currently, 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with autism; two years ago, it was 1 in 54, and 20 years ago, the rate was 1 in 150, she said. This “tremendous amount of growth” and prevalence of autism have changed attitudes in society.
“The stigma around it has changed; the fear around it has changed,” Ye pointed out. “A lot of social structures have changed that allowed people to become more comfortable with autism.”
In addition, Ye said, many more physicians are screening children for autism earlier than in years past. “The earlier you get your kid diagnosed and the earlier you get them into therapy, the faster you see progress,” she said.
But, even though there have been advancements in society’s attitude and in services provided, Ye noticed that families were still feeling helpless after receiving an autism diagnosis, as when she was a child and her family friend attempted to find help.
“Families were still experiencing the same level of confusion and fear and chaos,” she said. “I was really surprised to see the family experience was still the same.”
Springtide was created to dispel those fears, to focus not only on the child with autism, but on the entire family as well. According to Ye, kids with autism typically have a number of co-occurring needs that all have to be coordinated, such as behavioral, sensory, primary care or any underlying medical conditions. Each center has a set number of therapists, and they all actively work together to make sure there are no gaps or overlaps in a child’s care. Springtide’s goal is to work with families to provide them with the information they need, “to really make sure that kid is taken care of across those areas,” she said.
“Kids with autism are incredibly complicated,” Ye said. “Some kids may need upwards of 30 hours of therapy a week. Springtide becomes a nice place where you can drop off. We will navigate all the different therapies.”
Particularly during the height of the pandemic, Springtide became essential for many families that were suddenly navigating numerous changes. Springtide became a “safe home” for the kids during that time, Ye said. “It also provided some respite for the families. The families were juggling a lot with work and the in-home schooling.”
Most of the sessions are one-on-one, but Springtide has slowly been able to reintroduce the social groups. During the pandemic, the centers observed isolated or quarantined children falling behind in social development skills because they didn’t have many opportunities to interact with their peers. “We’re really excited to bring it back,” Ye said of the social time, “because kids can learn a lot from their peers.”
She added, “I do think we saw regression on some skill sets. It’s been a pretty tough two years in general. I think we are going to see this with behavioral health and mental health for some time.”
Springtide also works closely with the educational districts in their areas to help make children as school-ready as possible. “For most families, their goal is to have their kid fully integrate with their peers in a school environment,” she said.
The Shrewsbury school district, Ye said, was one of the reasons they chose that town when Springtide was looking for a location for its newest center. In addition, they loved the location and found that Shrewsbury was welcoming and business-friendly. But beyond that, “there were clearly not enough high-quality autism care providers in the area,” Ye said. “We’ve found that Massachusetts overall is an area that has a need.”
Since opening the Shrewsbury location, the center has had steady enrollment and positive word of mouth, Ye said.
“We’re really happy to be here. It’s rewarding work, and at crazy times like this, it helps to have something positive.”