Story by Bri Hunter
One in every 59 children are diagnosed with autism according to the CDC and Murray State has taken an important step to easing that burden on families in Western Kentucky.
The Board of Regents approved a measure that would allow the University to create the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor Sean Simons will serve as director of the center.
Simons recently worked at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Ga., which is a world renowned center for autism spectrum disorders. He wanted to bring his expertise to an area where it may be difficult to find.
Jennifer Greve, special education teacher and mother of an 11-year-old autistic son named Dallas said that having a center so close to home is very beneficial.
“We can’t go to restaurants right now as a family,” Greve said. “We couldn’t go to Venture River today with the autism support group because we would have to be right on top of him. If a baby cries, his actions are inappropriate. So we need these levels of support to be able to provide appropriate outcomes.”
The center will have three main goals.
The first goal is to provide affordable and timely diagnostic services. One of the most concerning areas of diagnostic services is the time. Simons said that at any other place the shortest waiting list is 12 months and the longest is over 2 years.
Greve’s son was diagnosed at Weisskopf Evaluation Center in Louisville when he was 3 and a half years old.
“We waited about 9 months before we were able to get an appointment,” Greve said. “However, that was at a time when children were being diagnosed at a rate of 1 in every 88 children, given the additional diagnosis of autism today, the wait time has significantly increased.”
Many centers aren’t close to home and the evaluations are costly especially if insurance won’t cover part of it. The wait list for the Center here should never be longer than a couple of weeks, and if it comes to the point that the wait list lengthens then the Center will go into overtime and make sure that every child is taken care of in a timely manner. An evaluation through Murray State will cost $250.
The second goal of the Center is to provide support for families and school systems in western Kentucky.
“Over the next year we will host several workshops that are geared towards families that are experiencing some sort of difficulty or challenge with their child at home such as toilet training, feeding problems, teaching new skills, managing problem behaviors and things like that,” Simons said. “We’ll offer that at a very affordable three hour session, we’ll host it either on campus or at the public library and we will very intentionally try to offer support to families in the area. Which we are going to try and do this on a regular basis.”
The third and most difficult goal would be to provide direct services to children and teens in the form of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy.
“ABA therapy applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations,” according to autismspeaks.org. “The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.”
In order to achieve this, it requires space and plenty of people to make it happen.
“That’s what our children need,” Greve said about ABA therapy. “We were forced to make a decision between ABA therapy and school and the first time we chose school. It came to a point where we needed ABA therapy, so he’s now being homeschooled.”
Dallas Greve currently receives 25 hours of ABA therapy per week in his home. Greve’s insurance will cover up to 40 hours per week. However, that is not the case for all insurance companies.
“I feel like when we have to choose between education and ABA and those type of therapies, we are left trying to make a choice on what is best for our child instead of trying to incorporate both the educational system and ABA so that they may complement each other,” Greve said.
ABA therapy has been primarily privatized and therefore not in most school systems in Kentucky. The ABA curriculum has traditionally fallen under the psychology departments in colleges and universities. However, Simons is integrating ABA therapy into the education department as well.
Greve said it is important to give Simons credit for bringing this to Murray State.
“It takes a lot of investment in yourself to do what he is doing,” Greve said.
Greve is currently seeking a degree in ABA therapy as well as a doctorate in education from Murray State.
“When I heard Dr. Simons was bringing the actual program…it was very exciting,” Greve said. “I think it’s because I’ve done a lot of research…this program is exactly what I was looking for when I was researching programs that included ABA and administrative degrees.”
Murray State students will also have the opportunity to work in the Center and receive hands-on experience.
The Center is currently accepting appointments for the fall semester. Evaluations will begin the week of Aug. 22. To set up an appointment or for more information, go to murraystate.edu/autism.