By Marcus Kabel
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Joplin’s Ozark Center for Autism has grown aggressively from its 2007 start, doubling the number of children getting therapy and special education in its state-of-the-art classrooms on South Jackson Avenue.
Then the May 22 tornado hit. The building was shredded, and everything from preschool chairs and laminated picture cards to touch-screen computers and interactive white boards was lost or destroyed.
The hardware was gone, but the staff was intact. And crucial daily therapy for children with autism, along with services for their families, barely missed a beat. The center scrambled to move classes to undamaged homes and then into a temporary location donated by The Bridge across town.
Now the center, one of only a few nationwide providing a full menu of therapy, education and services for autism in one place, has caught its breath and is back in growing and planning mode.
Many of the preschool and school-age children are attending class in the new digs, above an indoor skate park at The Bridge, while others are getting therapy at home until a new, larger temporary location is prepared. The center also is moving ahead with plans for a major expansion of services later this year to include adults with autism.
“Our programs are going full storm,” said Paula Baker, chief clinical officer and autism administrator with Freeman Health System, which operates the Ozark Center. “We want people to know the services and programs are continuing, and not just the existing ones, but also the growth plans.”
Keeping services going is critical for children whose chances of benefiting from therapy increase the more frequently they get it and the younger they get it. The Ozark Center’s programs are based on applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, a therapy that is widely used to help children with autism develop the social, verbal and other skills hindered by their neurological disorder.
Autism is on the increase among America’s children, but institutions like the Ozark Center that provide school-like therapy five days a week and a host of other services are still a rarity. Freeman Health System started the center in 2007 after realizing that families in the area had to go hundreds of miles to find anything comparable. One Joplin family that year relocated to Ohio.
“Autism centers that provide therapies and related services under one roof are still, unfortunately, few and far between,” said Peter Bell, executive vice president of programs and services at the national organization Autism Speaks.
“Families that are fortunate enough to have access to these facilities can have their lives completely disrupted when the centers are forced to close their doors, for whatever reason.”
The Ozark Center for Autism opened as a preschool, providing full-time ABA therapy five days a week for eight children. It has expanded rapidly since then, adding a state-accredited education program for students up to age 21, in-home therapy in an area stretching from Diamond to Pittsburg, Kan., parent support and training, consulting for local schools, and more. There were 12 children in preschool and four in special education in May, and the center estimates its various services have helped more than 300 people since it opened.
The preschool features a ratio of one therapist or teacher to one child. The center had well-equipped separate rooms at the original site, but for now it is sharing two large rooms at The Bridge with equipment and toys donated by many supporters.
“It was a crazy week,” said Jennifer Long, director of the preschool, about the transition. But within a couple of days after the storm, the children were getting therapy at home, and the following week most of them were in the new location.
“We are still accepting new students for services,” Long said. The preschool has a waiting list, but two older students were accepted last week.
Next move in 90 days
The center’s latest addition before the tornado was an autism diagnostic team launched in January that brings together the specialists, from pediatricians to speech therapists, who can determine early on if a child has autism. That’s a benefit because early diagnosis can speed up the start of therapy for very young children and improve the outcome. Without the Joplin team, parents might have to make many appointments with separate specialists, some as far away as Kansas City or St. Louis, to get the same result.
Baker said the storm damage set the center back by only about two months or so on its next big project, starting autism services for adults. The program will focus on vocational training and daily living skills. She expects those programs to start this fall. The Ozark Center expects to offer classes for adults with autism on such topics as how to apply for a job, social skills at work, phone etiquette, and hygiene and exercise.
“We’re going to continue to expand aggressively in the future,” she said.
The center now is refurbishing a longer-term temporary home, with more space, in a strip mall near 32nd Street and Indiana Avenue, and it expects to move there in 90 days, Baker said. Eventually there will be a new permanent home in Joplin, but the location has yet to be determined.
The center receives some state money, about $625,000 this year, but community and private fundraising has been critical all along. Baker said people in Joplin and the Four-State Area have been supportive of the program from the start.
“We want to continue that,” she said. “We can’t get to the future of the program without the support of the community.”