PlayBig Therapy & Learning Center is shaking up traditional treatment practices for patients with autism and other neurological challenges in the Tallahassee area.
“PlayBig is the first therapy practice in the nation to integrate developmental therapies with behavioral health therapies in its model, which has had profound results for our young patients and their families,” said Rachel Scharlepp, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and PlayBig owner.
PlayBig brings licensed physical and occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, behavioral health therapists, and targeted case managers together, treating the patient as a team, under one roof.
Pediatricians and other health care providers have referred hundreds of private and Medicaid pediatric patients to PlayBig.
At last count, PlayBig averaged more than 120 therapy sessions per day. In September, PlayBig treated 166 individual children.
The parents and grandparents of children treated at PlayBig attests to the success of the program.
Annette Woodard’s five-year-old grandson, Chase, has been treated at PlayBig for about two years. She said before PlayBig, Chase was completely non-verbal and anti-social. She said after being at PlayBig for about six months, it was like they “flipped a switch.”
“He came in and said, ‘More chips, please, Nana,’” she said tearing up at the memory.
“I just cried and handed him the whole bag,” she said with a smile.
Kelley Hutto, a licensed Physical Therapist and the other owner/founder of PlayBig, said she has been very pleased and touched by the many local pediatrician’s referrals to her center. “The medical community has supported us so incredibly well. It is referring children they never thought could be referred for therapy, such as older children, really, really aggressive children — children no one else will take. We take them.”
However, there have been obstacles.
PlayBig is not an approved provider for Capital Health Plan (CHP), a local health maintenance organization (HMO), even though doctors within the network refer patients to PlayBig on a regular basis.
PlayBig applied to be an approved provider but was rejected because CHP said there was a lack of need, even though there is a six to nine month waiting list for children needing care, according to Hutto.
Hutto feels CHP is restricting care for children. “Parents are having to pay out-of-pocket for health care because CHP will not expand its network to include more providers,” Hutto said.
According to John Hogan, President and Chief Executive Officer of CHP, “There isn’t a health plan or insurer in Tallahassee that can include every possible provider. We are trying to be as comprehensive as we can be, but there are limits to our ability do that and keep an affordable premium.” Hogan described the treatment provided by PlayBig as nothing new. It’s just packaged differently.
The Leon County School System has also presented challenges to PlayBig. Under PlayBig’s system, children are treated by peer group, with the youngest coming in the morning and patients get older as day progresses. The school system has balked at students leaving campus during the school day.
Dr. Allen Cox, Leon County’s Special Education director, said the school system’s own special education programs, such as those at Gretchen Everhart School, a day school serving special needs children from Pre-K to the age of 22 and smaller programs at Robert’s Elementary and Hawk’s Rise, are also very successful. He said that while the school system welcomes outside providers within the schools, they do not want the children leaving during the day because the school system is accountable for the autistic childs’ standardized test grades and because the schools receive a federal grant based on full-time enrollment (FTE). The Individual with Disabilities Education Grant, a federal entitlement grant, provides Leon County Schools with approximately $8 million annually.
“We are paid for 300 minutes of education a day, so I can’t claim that FTE if the student is leaving,” Cox explained.
But Hutto said, “Some of these children are feral (they are licking themselves or banging their heads on the table), they are unavailable for academic learning. One in 68 children have autism. If you look at it, it’s unrealistic to think we could serve all those children after 3 p.m. We are open 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. We are doing the best that we can. It’s just not possible.”
She said she understands the school’s need for “butts in the seats” for federal funding and has offered to not schedule treatment for the days children are counted.
“But I think our model is exposing weaknesses in the system and children are suffering because of it,” she said.
Cox said, “I’m for all the help we can give children, but we only have that six and a half hour block we can work with them. I love them going to these programs. I’d love it a lot more if they did it after school.”