Game Nights hosted by As We Grow Counseling have been an effective way of improving the social well-being of children and young adults with special needs. (Photos: Charmaine George)

For 14 years, the licensed therapists at As We Grow Counseling have helped people of all ages in Wesley Chapel and the surrounding areas tackle relationships and personal growth.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Melissa Amaya started the practice in Seven Oaks in 2007, when her son, Ethan, was born. He has special needs and was often at therapy appointments five days a week, so starting her own practice gave her the flexibility to care for him.

Now that he’s older, Melissa has found another way to help him and others like him meet some of their unique challenges.

As We Grow Counseling is offering opportunities for kids and young adults, ages 4-21, with ADS, ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities and other unique needs to socialize and learn life and social skills.

“One of my son’s disabilities is autism,” says Melissa, “so I was trying to find a group to help him learn social skills, like how to start conversations with other kids and about unwritten social cues, and also life skills, like how to do laundry and go grocery shopping.”

When she couldn’t find such a program, she decided to tackle it herself, and began offering groups in June.

“I need to do what I enjoy and what comes from the heart,” Melissa explains. And she asks, “Who better to start these than someone who is a clinician and competent in this area, who also is a mom who has a child with special needs?”

Melissa earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree from Monmouth University in New Jersey, and then her Master of Social Work (MSW) degree with a specialization in Family & Child Therapy from Fordham University in New York City in 1997.

When she first went to college, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications and advertising. However, when she went to work in the pharmaceutical industry, she quickly realized she wanted to do work that was more meaningful to her.

She says As We Grow Counseling helps people in many ways throughout their lives. “You grow as a couple, as an adult, or even as a senior citizen, but you’re still growing and learning.”

As We Grow sees people of all ages for therapy, from kids as young as age three up to adults, including couples and individuals.

The practice currently has 20 clinicians who all work part time. Melissa says most are doing teletherapy, but some clinicians are beginning to return to in-person counseling sessions. They work during the day, in the evening, and on weekends, including both Saturdays and Sundays.

Groups & Special Events

While she believes that individual counseling can be effective for kids with special needs, she recognizes that they often already spend big chunks of their time at appointments such as physical, occupational and/or speech therapy, so she recognizes the benefits of the social and life skills groups.

“When we do the groups, they learn so much from their peers,” she says. “It’s a more comfortable setting for them.”

Groups are offered for children ages four to 19, broken down by age group, and kids with any disability can participate. There is one group just for girls, while other groups are mixed.

Jeanne Harrison (left) and Melissa Amaya

“It helps them with confidence building,” Melissa explains. “A lot of kids with special needs also have anxiety, which prevents them from fully interacting with their peers, getting a job, and even advocating for themselves at school — just to ask for help if they need it. These are skills they need everywhere in life.”

And then, to practice the skills they are learning in their groups, As We Grow Counseling now offers Game Nights and special “bonus” events.

Jeanne Harrison (left) and Melissa Amaya

These might be cooking classes, pottery painting or going to Pinot’s Palette or Main Event. A field trip to an Escape Room was held for October and an outing to Grand Prix Tampa for go-karts and miniature golf is planned for Saturday, November 13, and an outing to watch a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game is coming up on Tuesday, December 14. 

While the special events require an advance RSVP, Game Nights do not. They are for ages 5-21 and include crafts, dancing, a movie, indoor badminton, corn hole, pizza and even visits from therapy dogs, when they are available. 

Melissa heads up Game Nights with an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teacher, Jeanne Harrison, and the support of volunteers. 

Upcoming Game Nights will be held Fridays, November 19, and December 3,  at the Seven Oaks Community Clubhouse, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. The cost is $20 per child.

Parents are welcome to stay but can choose to drop their children off. Kids can come to all of the activities, or just the ones that interest them or fit their schedule.

The social skills groups have limited space and are generally paid by insurance. As We Grow Counseling takes all major insurance plans except Medicaid and also accepts the Gardiner Scholarship. 

“There’s a huge need,” Melissa says. “The biggest hurdle I have is getting the word out to people.”

Shonda Brown is mom to Ahmari, an 11-year-old with high-functioning autism and ADHD. She recently noticed that he has struggled with some issues, such as feeling resentful of the differences he has noticed between himself and other kids.

“It’s a blessing to have found something in the midst of a storm,” says Shonda, who also has been a therapy patient of Melissa’s for several years. 

Ahmari started middle school this year, which Shonda admits was a little scary, especially since she was exhausted from the daily phone calls she was getting last school year. But, her son’s involvement in the As We Grow programs has been beneficial.

“I just talked with his school counselor and she says he’s doing great,” Shonda says. “I haven’t gotten one call from a teacher, and he has six teachers now! He also has outstanding grades.”

She thinks some of the growth she’s seen is because, at Game Nights, he’s around both guys and girls of all different ages, and they are showing him maturity. 

“He started off quiet and now he’s raising his hand and loves to sing and dance,” she says. “It allows him to be him in his own element without having to worry about any judgement.”

Shonda adds that she really appreciates the hour or two she gets to herself while Ahmari is at his skills group or Game Nights, whether she uses it to go grocery shopping or just sit in her car and enjoy the peace and quiet.

“It’s amazing,” Shonda says. “I hope Melissa can branch out to more parents. I don’t know where I’d be without (As We Grow Counseling) and without her.”

As We Grow Counseling is located in Seven Oaks at 2240 Twelve Oaks Way, Suite 101. To learn more about the opportunities for children with special needs, call Melissa on her cell phone at (813) 442-2971. To make an appointment, call (813) 838-4807. Or, to learn more about the practice, visit 

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