The Power of Play
Children with autism (developmental delays) and their families
find the support they need in the ABA Place
story by Tonya L. Thompson
hen 8-year-old Jack Busby, a nonverbal autistic child, enters The ABA Place, located in Bartlett, Tennessee, he talks with the staff. For his parents, this fact alone is reason enough to bring him weekly.
On the organization’s website, their mission is clear: The ABA Place was created to fill a void and provide a support network for children with developmental delays in the MidSouth, as well as their families. This mission is a personal one to Jenni Helms, Founder and Executive Director of The ABA Place, whose son is autistic. “I started this because there were no social and extracurricular activities for children with autism. I wanted my son to have fun and participate in activities where he was accepted outside of school, so I created this program based on what was missing in our community for all families with special needs children.”
Although the doors to its current location were opened in 2009, the beginnings of the organization go back to 2005. “It started as a ‘play date’ with a couple of other children that had autism,” says Jenni. “Word started to spread and more and more families wanted to participate. After we outgrew hosting the ‘play dates’ at our house, we moved to St. Francis Elementary school and they let us use space there at no charge. We were there for a little over a year while we saved money and eventually rented our own space.”
That space, located at 7953 Stage Hills Boulevard, Suite 101, in Bartlett, Tennessee has grown into a thriving gathering place for children with developmental delays, their siblings and their parents. “My number one goal for The ABA Place has always been for our kids to have FUN while continuing to grow and make progress,” says Jenni. “Our children thrive when participating in structured activities that interest them. We work side by side with each child’s educational program but we also focus a lot on play and interaction. With the perfect mix of intervention our children are more successful.”
The ABA Place offers social skills training, incorporating ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) methods; educational sessions for home-schooled children with special needs; holiday and summer camps; private tutoring, using the child’s IEP; sibling workshops, in which “typically” developing siblings of special needs children are provided support; Board Certified Behavior Analyst consultation and IEP program management; parent training; parents’ night out; an Autism Moms Group; and an Autism Dads Group, with “Dad’s Night Out,” in which fathers of special needs children meet to play poker and relax.
For Jack Busby and his family, The ABA Place has become a source of much-needed strength and encouragement. “ABA Place provides a larger community to families who feel isolated and alone,” says his mother, Sally, a teacher with Memphis City Schools. “I am so grateful to The ABA Place because there is absolutely no other place like it in Memphis. My son loves the therapists there and the other children and I think he views The ABA Place as part of his home. It is obvious that he feels safe and loved there.”
It is just equally as obvious from speaking with the families involved with The ABA Place that the benefits offered go far beyond what is listed on the website. Much of this is due to the passion the Founder has for what she is doing. “Every single child that we serve is like my own,” says Jenni. “I know each and every one of them and their parents. I am as involved with each child as their parents need me to be. I get to spend time with these precious children and I have watched so many of them grow and make tremendous progress over the years. Another thing that is rewarding to me, or maybe is more of an interest, is figuring out each child. I love the challenge in finding what will work for each and every one of them. Each child is so very different, that no particular theory will work for all of them. You have to be creative and think outside the box. This always keeps us on our toes and keeps things exciting. The smiles and laughs you get when a child is successful are worth every minute!”
Although there are fees for services provided, The ABA Place focuses on keeping costs down as low as possible and remains non-profit in order to serve more families. Additionally, they are focused on growing a scholarship fund to help children whose families are not able to pay. Donations are accepted and tax deductible. For more information, contact Jenni by email at or visit The ABA Place’s Website at