With the recent opening of Choice Autism Center in Traverse City, parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have growing options in dealing with the condition that appears to be more prevalent than ever.
Choice Autism Center is just the latest area organization to open its doors. Autism Centers of Michigan operates six centers around the state, including Traverse City and its newest location in Cadillac. Add to that Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD), which operates classrooms for students at Oak Park Elementary, East Middle School, West High School and the Life Skills Center, and it’s clear there are far more options than a decade ago.
That’s good news, because ASD appears to be getting more common. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the estimated percentage of children with ASD was about 1.7 percent (1 in 59 children), based on data reported from 11 communities across the United States in 2014. Previous estimates from the ranged from 1 in 150 to 1 in 68.
Nicole Wheeler of Choice suspects the numbers indicate both an increase in the cases of ASD and greater proficiency in making a diagnosis. “It’s probably both. We’re better able to see it. It means there is a definite need for us,” she says. While Choice is only working with a small number of students and their families at this point, Wheeler anticipates the number growing as the company reaches out more to the community and hires additional staff.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, ASD is a complex developmental disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others. It is a neurological disorder, and can manifest in a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.
Wheeler came to the field as a result of two of her own children being diagnosed with ASD. She opened Choice Autism Center as an offshoot of Turning Point, where she worked in Maryland. When she and her husband decided to move back to her hometown following his discharge from the military, her company suggested opening an office in Traverse City.
Krista Boe, chief clinical officer at Autism Centers of Michigan, is also a Michigan native. She returned to the state three years ago when the first of that company’s six locations opened. With the opening of the Cadillac location, Autism Centers of Michigan now works with some 200 families across the state, about half of which are in northern Michigan.
She and Wheeler both say that Applied Behavior Analysis is the only scientifically validated treatment for ASD. And they agree that the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prospects. “With earlier intervention, outcomes are different than when they are older,” says Boe.
The process focuses on decreasing problem behaviors and increasing positive and age-appropriate skills. Each treatment plan is individualized to the child’s strengths and skill deficits. Among the skills they work on are communication, both verbal and non-verbal; social skills; pay skills; toileting; feeding and eating; and pre-academics.
TBAISD, meanwhile, which serves 16 area public school districts in the region, offers 12 self-contained classrooms for students with ASD. Seven of those classrooms are at Oak Park School in TC. Oak Park operates during the traditional school calendar year, but also offers a summer program.
Clinical settings like those at Choice Autism Center and Autism Centers of Michigan operate year-round.
Deb Nelson, who supervises the programs at Oak Park, says the various local resources are critical. “Collaboration among the various providers of service and support is extremely helpful in order to work together, establishing priorities, for the best outcomes for each individual child,” she says.
She encourages any area parents concerned about their child’s development to contact their local school district or health provider.