The Autism Center made its début on campus Fall 2014 and dedicates itself to making autism evaluations convenient to those diagnosed.
The Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences worked toward raising funds for the center for several years.
Gail Richard, the director of the Autism Center, said The Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences has a speech language and hearing clinic. The clinic has been around for 50 years and many of the clients the department sees have been in the autism spectrum.
Before the Autism Center many families from down state Illinois were required to travel to Indianapolis, Chicago or St. Louis and often times had to wait up to a year to get treatment because of being waitlisted by those big list metropolitan clinics.
“One of the reasons the center was started was to serve down state people in a more timely way,” Richard said.
Richard said three of the main goals of the center are to offer services for evaluations, consultations and education. In the evaluations the family needs to figure out if the loved one has autism, then the next step is figuring out what to do.
“What we do is diagnose so they have the label and can get services,” Richard said. “We also generate extensive recommendations for families to take back home and implement.”
Some of the components in autism often confuse families and the center sorts out those characteristics including how the person eats. Richard said some children with autism are picky eaters and cannot tolerate certain tastes and textures. The center conducts feeding evaluations to aid the family so the child is still getting the right amount of nutrition.
“Another characteristic the center works with is children who are non-verbal,” Richard said. “They can’t talk, they don’t know how to coordinate that musculature and that leads to a lot of behavioral problems.”
While this is the second year of the Autism Center, the Students with Autism Transitional Education Program started up this fall for students at Eastern with autism.
STEP is a program aiming to give support to new college students to make sure they get to a good start. Richard said the goal is to get the students on track academically, help them navigate the school and then gradually give them independency by letting them do things on their own.
“What we don’t want them to do is say they can’t manage the dining hall because it’s too noisy or they don’t know how to just manage the social situations or how to navigate a college campus,” Richard said.
The program is unique in the sense that it is the only program structured the way it is in the Midwest. The closest program is in northern Kentucky.
Five students are in STEP this semester. Richard said because Eastern is personalized and small, STEP is in the perfect location. She said many people call in inquiring how to set up an evaluation for their child and the calls alone are a good sign of a potentially successful program.
In the STEP program, study tables are implemented and one-on-one meetings are held to track the students’ classes and grades.
Richard said the students have incredible potential which can go unnoticed if they do not receive the proper support.
“The individuals with Aspergers or high functioning autism are generally brilliant students, we have a couple right now that have a ACT of 31 that we are looking at for next fall,” Richard said. “They are just not good at navigating the social world.”
Meghan Levy, a graduate assistant for the Autism Center, said she works with individuals with autism from ages three to students in college. She said her big responsibility is with the evaluations at the center.
“How you would test them is completely different,” Levy said. “With the college student I could sit at a desk and ask them questions but with a child its got to be more interactive and it’s got to move quicker.”
Mary Beth Xenakis, a graduate assistant for the STEP program, said she works with the students on transitioning from a structured home life to independency.
“In high school they have these routine supports in place and living at home with their family members,” Xenakis said. “When they get here they have to maneuver on their on, and it’s hard because you need someone to walk you through the challenges on a college campus.”
Levy said the support both at STEP and the center helps to make their dependent nature fade away.
“It’s intimidating to us to because it’s getting to know them and every individual with autism is different,” Xenakis said. “You can’t assume that you have an idea of autism when you meet these students.”
T’Nerra Butler can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]