“The fun doctor” helps unlock the potential of young children with autism.
I find if I spend enough time on Facebook, I eventually see something really good. That’s how I discovered the video of Ben Gretchko delivering a commencement speech on June 4 at his graduation from Birmingham Seaholm High School.
Ben’s commencement speech has made the rounds on social media and, dare I say, his four-minute address was far more meaningful than the Facebook posts of funny animal videos I scrolled passed. He was simply amazing. And inspiring. And popular — the video of his speech posted on the Autism Speaks’ Facebook page has amassed more than 2.2 million views.
Ben has autism. He didn’t begin speaking until he was about 4 years old and, even then, according to his mother, Lisa Gretchko, “his words were unintelligible.” But to Lisa and Ben’s father, Steve, whatever Ben was trying to say was music to their ears because they were told to prepare for the possibility that Ben might never utter a word.
“I suffer with the families and I give hope to the families, and I love watching the children as they progress. I am dedicated to each little human’s potential.”
— Dr. Richard Solomon
What I couldn’t figure out is this: How did a kid like Ben grow from a nonverbal child with autism to an incredibly articulate and poised 18-year-old commencement speaker who recently had to decide which college to attend (because he got admitted to four universities!). How did that happen?
I’ve known Lisa for many years; our parents were lifelong friends. However, I didn’t learn the details about Ben’s miraculous journey until I called to wish her and Steve a mazel tov and to express how moved I was by their son’s speech. After a long talk, I suggested that Ben’s inspirational story should be shared with our Jewish News readers. Lisa and Steve had a suggestion of their own.
It turns out that Ben already had, what the Gretchkos humbly considered, his fair share of post-speech media attention. In addition to the video of his address that went viral, WXYZ-TV named Ben its “Person of the Week” in late June. If Ben was to be the catalyst for additional coverage, Lisa and Steve wanted it to be for the greater good of the community — especially families dealing with autism.
To that end, the Gretchkos recommended that I focus on the person who created the roadmap to success for Ben. He’s a man Lisa describes as “truly a hero among us” — Dr. Richard Solomon, M.D., medical director of the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Solomon, 68, was born in Ohio, but his Michigan roots run deep. He earned his bachelor of science degree in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1971 and his medical degree from Michigan State’s College of Human Medicine in 1981. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Linda, of 45 years. They have two children and four grandchildren, all living in Ann Arbor.
After reviewing Solomon’s curriculum vitae, 17 pages worth, it would be hard to imagine finding someone with a greater breadth and depth of knowledge in the field of development and behavioral pediatrics. Over the years, he’s worked alongside and was influenced by some of the most renowned visionaries in his field, including pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Stanley Greenspan and the late great Fred Rogers.
All these experiences laid the groundwork for Solomon founding his signature program — the PLAY Project, an early intervention program to help children with autism.
An Innovative Model
PLAY, an acronym for Play & Language for Autistic Youngsters, represents an evolution in autistic therapeutic care. It was born out of Solomon’s years of research, diagnosing and treating children across the wide autism spectrum. At its core, PLAY relies on a Parent-Implemented Model (PIM) of therapy whereby parents (with the child present) are shown how to follow their child’s lead and receive intensive training and therapeutic modeling by a certified PLAY consultant who creates specific strategies unique to each child’s developmental needs.
“PLAY is not a one-size-fits-all program, but it’s creative, rewarding and fun,” says Lisa Gretchko. “Dr. Solomon and our PLAY consultant instructed us on how to adjust each interaction with Ben to ‘fit’ Ben’s development stage at that point in time, and to help him reach the next stage of his development. If you ask Ben what he remembers of the PLAY Project, he’ll tell you that Steve and I played with him a lot! It’s a very cool and innovative therapy.”
The PLAY consultant observes, supervises and videos each family engaging with their child in the comfort of their home. The videos are then analyzed and adjustments are made on an as-needed basis. Think of it as the parents being the captains of the ship and PLAY is the rudder, keeping moms and dads on course through the rough waters of creating a connection with their child.
While the parents, the children and the PLAY strategies for a particular child go through a maturation process, one thing remains consistent for all youngsters with autism — the critical importance of early intervention.
“We start as young as 12 months,” Solomon says. “Children with autism have a unique capacity to make new connections in the brain — called plasticity. Because of plasticity, children with autism, if they get intensive early intervention (ideally before age 6), can become fully functional in society after starting with very little communication or interest in others.”
Ben Gretchko, Solomon told me, “is the poster boy for the potential within the child and brain plasticity.”
PLAY has evidenced-based science on its side. In 2009, after a three-year randomized controlled trial of the PLAY Project Home Consultation Model, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, independent researchers from Michigan State University were able to confirm that the PLAY model was, in fact, yielding significant, positive results in the reduction of autism-related symptoms.
Findings of the study were published in the October 2014 edition of the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. To this day, it remains one of the largest, most comprehensive studies of its kind.
‘The Fun Doctor’
To his patients and their families, Solomon is known simply as “Dr. Rick” or “the fun doctor,” whose prescription for success includes connecting and building trust among his often fearful and fragile young patients in a way that leaves them smiling and laughing. Getting down on the floor and playing with toys with a young patient is standard protocol.
An initial visit with Solomon usually lasts around two hours, with families often leaving the appointment with a diagnosis and a plan of action predicated on where the child places on the autism spectrum. If the PLAY program is indicated, a trained, certified PLAY consultant is assigned to the family and the process begins. And, the great news is that PLAY therapy is not geographically limited to the Ann Arbor area.
The PLAY project knows no boundaries and is growing on a national and global scale with more than 400 trained PLAY consultants in 30 states and nine foreign countries.
“We train and certify professionals who incorporate PLAY into their service agencies,” Solomon says. Once established, “we re-certify and license as a way of guaranteeing high quality.”
The success of PLAY has made Solomon a sought-after speaker. He’s introduced PLAY to thousands of families and professionals around the globe and, most recently, spoke to colleagues in China this July. Because of the growing exposure of his groundbreaking work and reputation, referrals from outstate pediatricians and neurologists are not uncommon.
Shanai and Zachary Muth are a case in point. Having learned about Solomon through their local physicians, they traveled from their Fremont, Ohio, home last month for additional support for their son Zayne, 5, who is currently nonverbal and about to enter his second year of preschool.
Shanai described how during their appointment Solomon played with toys with her son and got him to laugh. “Zayne just loved it,” she says. “Dr. Solomon was absolutely wonderful. He was so good with Zayne. So understanding.”
It was apparent from my conversation with Shanai that she and her husband left their two-hour session with Solomon with new-found confidence and hope.
“He said he was going to write out a plan for us about how to interact with Zayne, to be his therapist at home and to make sure we were going about it the right way and not getting stressed.” In describing his efforts on their behalf, Shanai added that Solomon “has gone above and beyond.”
In sharing a small part of her family’s journey, Shanai Muth hopes she can positively impact other families. “If someone else can hear our story, it will let them know there’s help.”
For Ella and Marco Herbas of Philadelphia, it was research and not a referral that led them to Solomon and help for their 5-year-old son. Max, who Ella described as high functioning and absent of any serious academic problems, needed guidance for several behavioral issues and timing was of the essence.
“I was worried about Max entering kindergarten this year and not receiving appropriate support for his attention, social skills and flexibility,” Ella says. While the Philadelphia area was not lacking in quality programs for autistic support, Ella was in a race against time.
“To see a developmental pediatrician or see a doctor through the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania could take a year and I didn’t want to wait.” That’s when Ella began investigating other options.
The Herbases were on an extended vacation in Michigan this summer when, during an internet search, Ella, an educator for the last 12 years, learned about Solomon’s work in Ann Arbor. “I came across Dr. Solomon’s name and I read positive reviews about him and made an appointment.”
Solomon confirmed Max’s autism diagnosis and provided what would be an invaluable and detailed report. She described leaving the consult with Solomon with “knowledge and direction of what I could do to help Max as a parent,” adding it also gave her “power to work with the system [in Philadelphia] to get him support.”
Ella’s description of how Max interacted with Solomon echoed the sentiments of the Muth family from Ohio. “Dr. Rick is a big kid at heart. A big teddy bear. That’s the first thing you notice about him. He was great with Max and knew how to get to his level. And when Max would get frustrated, he knew exactly what to do and what to say to get him unstuck.”
An autism diagnosis is daunting enough for parents, without having to wonder how they are going to pay for their child’s care. In Michigan, according to Solomon, “Things have improved a lot in the last four to five years because the state passed a law that requires the insurance companies to cover one type of intervention called ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Initially, a lot more children got services, but now there are long waiting lists for both diagnostics and treatment.”
Currently, the cost of the PLAY Project’s early intervention program varies depending on the number of home visits. The key factor though is that the PLAY Project is a PIM (parent-implemented model) and costs a fraction of ABA therapy.
Solomon looks forward to the day when private insurers will cover PIM therapies, including the PLAY Project. “If we can get the insurance companies to cover PIM, then many more children will be helped because [PIM therapies] are easier to implement than ABA and can be disseminated across the state.”
In the meantime, Solomon continues to work at keeping his PLAY Project cost-effective and accessible. He also offers a program called Teaching PLAY, which, Solomon says, “teaches teachers how to engage children with autism using PLAY Project methods.”
Solomon’s relationship with his patients and families doesn’t end when progress begins or a child reaches a certain age. “My practice is a bit unusual as I follow the majority of the children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) throughout their childhood and adolescence until they graduate high school or leave my practice because they no longer need my help.”
It’s easy to see that Solomon’s long-term commitment to his patients has a great impact on him personally. “I suffer with the families and I give hope to the families, and I love watching the children as they progress. I am dedicated to each little human’s potential.”
It’s that dedication that has paved the way for the Ben Gretchkos in our world.
Solomon and his wife, Linda, were in the audience with Lisa and Steve to watch Ben deliver his high school commencement speech on June 4. It was a proud moment — a rich reward for this extremely dedicated pediatrician.
“The PLAY Project is a beacon of hope in a wilderness of despair for families of children with autism and for the children themselves,” says Lisa Gretchko. “I shudder to think what would have become of our son and the rest of our family without Dr. Solomon. His work is the ultimate tikkun olam because it ‘repairs the world’ one child and one family at a time.”
Dr. Solomon is the author of Autism: The Potential Within. Learn more about “Dr. Rick” and the PLAY Project by visiting playproject.org or calling (734) 997-9088. Ben Gretchko is now a freshman at Western Michigan University. See his graduation speech at https://youtube.