EMU's Autism Collaborative Center seeks to change the "entire trajectory" for kids with autism

Eastern Michigan University's Autism Collaborative Center (ACC) has served children with autism since it opened its doors in 2009. But over the past five years changes in Michigan law and funding have allowed the center to offer higher-quality services to more patients than ever before.


The ACC provides therapy services for children on the autism spectrum, usually between the ages of 2 and 10. But it also serves those children's parents and siblings through support opportunities in an effort to help the whole family rather than just the individual.


After the state's Autism Insurance Reform legislation went into effect in 2012, the ACC saw an influx of families who previously couldn't afford to pay out of pocket for therapy, due to a new mandate requiring insurance companies to cover diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder for individuals under 18. Around the same time, the ACC received state grants designed to support the legislation, which the center used to fund renovations and upgrades to its facility at 1055 Cornell in Ypsilanti. Among those changes were the addition of observation rooms, an inclusive playground, and learning labs modeled after typical rooms in a house so kids can practice skills in a more natural environment.


"It’s been a very thoughtful process," says ACC managing director Kris Kastle. "[Renovations have considered] everything from the colors on the wall, to making sure the light fixtures are not fluorescent lights, to making sure we have therapeutic equipment that would be best suited for our clients’ use."


The state grants also allowed the ACC to hire its first cohort of clinicians, who had previously worked on a contractual basis, in an effort to expand the center's services. Kastle thinks the full-time staff was necessary to improve continuity and quality of care after the ACC increased its client base as a result of the reform legislation.


Before the reform, only affluent families were able to pay out of pocket for therapy services, which cost an average of about $3,000 per month, according to manager of therapeutic and educational services Allison Greening. She believes removing that financial barrier has allowed children with autism not only to "access services and be helped in a really meaningful, intensive way early in life," but also to change the "entire trajectory of what that child’s education future, professional future, [and] independence" can look like later in life.


Services for children with autism


Parents are often referred to the ACC after their children receive an autism diagnosis, which usually happens between the ages of 2 and 3. Before therapy begins, the ACC assesses children based on their abilities, not on their age, to ensure they will be challenged and supported in goal-setting.


The main services offered at the ACC are applied behavior analysis, social skills support, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy. Many children receive a mix of those services. There's a focus on preparing children for preschool or elementary school, so the ACC incorporates the teaching of common classroom routines, such as receiving instruction in a group dynamic, lining up and walking down a hallway, and waiting for a turn at the drinking fountain.


Bernadette Munji's 3-year-old son, Willy, started going to therapy at the ACC five times a week and he now goes three times a week. She believes her willingness to drive so frequently from her home in Flint to the ACC in Ypsi shows how much her family likes the center.


"I can’t say enough about how great of an experience we have had [at the ACC]. The only difficulty has been getting transportation, but we decided long ago that we were going to make that work and it has worked for us," Munji says. "It is worth every day of it and every mile of it."


Willy is non-verbal, but his therapy sessions have taught him how to communicate his wants and needs by pointing to certain objects, like a pot when he's hungry or a door when he wants to go outside. He's learned how to eat solid foods, like broccoli and rice, by getting used to different textures and how to feed himself with a spoon.


"We have seen tremendous progress in terms of his behavior and getting him to focus and stay on task," Munji says.


Services for families of children with autism


Parents are encouraged to spend as much time at the ACC as they can so they can watch their children's therapy sessions, learn methods, and then continue them at home, as well as build rapport with the staff. Parents are invited to watch discreetly from the observation rooms for most sessions, or from inside the same room during some speech and occupational therapy sessions.


"That’s the best thing about the ACC, especially if you’re a parent that wants to work with your child at home, is the ability to sit through the sessions," Munji says. "Without that we would not have known what to do at home."


The ACC ultimately wants to build trust between staff members and clients so the family members of children with autism feel comfortable coming to staff with questions or concerns. Staff hold monthly meetings with parents to inform them of their children's progress, including new skills and skills they should work on at home.


Sometimes the center hosts family events, like sibling workshops or parent support groups, when the staff starts to get a sense that there's a need among the community. This summer, the ACC held an outdoor family event with games, snacks, and crafts. These events provide the opportunity for parents to connect and children to play with one another so friendships can evolve.


Since Munji lives about 70 miles from Ypsi, she sometimes can't take Willy to the ACC's family events. But Munji often talks to Greening about different events or places, like a splash pad or playground, in the Flint area and whether or not they would be appropriate for Willy. ACC staff helped Munji come up with an action plan in case Willy isn't comfortable in a particular situation.


"Autism services are a dedication for a family," Kastle says. "We have families who have restructured their lives to make sure that their kiddo’s getting the best quality and amount of services that they need."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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