As Autism Awareness Month wraps up, families in the Ozarks can look forward to a new resource for quickly diagnosing and treating autism – a process that is often tedious.
Elizabeth Obrey, family advocate at The Arc of the Ozarks, knows that firsthand. At two years old, her daughter wasn’t speaking and seemed lost in another world. A neighbor, whose daughter had severe autism, suggested screening, but it took an eye-opening moment during a Parents as Teachers appointment for Obrey to make the move.
“I knew I was in trouble when the mother ahead of us was upset that her child knew what a banana was but couldn’t grasp that it was a fruit,” she said. “My daughter was the same age – 27 months – and didn’t know I was her mother or what her own name was.”
That heartbreaking moment led Obrey to look for answers, but those took time. “The actual process took close to three months,” she said. “There were evaluations, interviews, paperwork, testing and ruling out all the other possibilities. We were trying to keep up with language and terms that were foreign to us, all while running from place to place and calling professionals then being told to wait. When you have a child who is hitting their head against the glass patio door and is unable to ask for a drink, the last thing you need is to fill out another paper.”
That exhaustive process is what the Mercy Autism Clinic plans to correct. Beginning this fall, Mercy pediatricians and family practice doctors will refer children to the clinic, which will operate two days each month. In a single appointment, the children will get a comprehensive evaluation including speech and occupational therapy as well as psychological testing. Missouri State University (MSU) will conduct a functional analysis, which looks at children’s behavior and their ability to problem solve and move from one activity to another.
“One month later, those families will return to the clinic for a diagnosis,” said Dr. Kyle John, Mercy Kids pediatric psychiatrist. “If they are on the autism spectrum, we’ll also have a treatment plan.” The Arc’s Family Advocacy department will help guide families beyond the diagnostic phase to understanding and navigating all the available funding and support in the area, including Rivendale Institute of Learning and Center for Autism. In addition, it can offer families applied behavioral analysis, which is the leading therapy recommended for children with autism. MSU graduate students will learn how to diagnose autism and be available to follow the children into their schools and serve as a behavioral resource for teachers.
Obrey says streamlining the process for parents will make a big difference.”It will keep them from getting drained just when they need to summon the most strength. Plus, having a team that’s talking to each other increases confidence that the diagnosis is correct and complete.”
With three of her five children diagnosed with autism, Obrey knows that therapy works. Her oldest daughter is now living on her own and performing at Disney World. “The most important part of therapy is starting it early and being consistent,” she advised. “You know a particular therapy is working when you see the targeted area is improving. You’ll often see an overall improvement as well.”
Dr. John agrees. “The earlier you intervene, the better the chance that the child’s level of impairment will be low. This clinic will connect them to the care they need in just one month.”
If you believe your child may have autism, begin by making an appointment with your pediatrician or family doctor.