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Autism center brings hope to Kitsap families

Emma, at Olympic Peninsula Autism Center, surprises one of her therapists with a hug on Wednesday.  - Wes Morrow
Emma, at Olympic Peninsula Autism Center, surprises one of her therapists with a hug on Wednesday.
— image credit: Wes Morrow

“We have a little boy. He’s 3. He’s been here for about six months. His mom called the other day in the evening and she’s like, ‘He said his name. I said, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘My name’s Caleb.’ ”

Alicia Hartnett, Olympic Peninsula Autism Center’s program director, told this story in early December.

“She was so happy because he’d never said his name before,” Hartnett said.

Olympic Peninsula Autism Center is a nonprofit operation providing therapy for the west side of Puget Sound out of its facility in Silverdale.

The autism center passed its one year anniversary in November. It was founded last year by John and Sara Hall.

The Halls have two young daughters, both diagnosed with autism. Before opening the center, they were taking their daughters to Kirkland multiple times a week for treatment.

Despite a clear need for autism services in the area, Kitsap County lacked many resources, until the Halls started Olympic Peninsula Autism Center.

The center officially merged with Easter Seals Disability Services in September, providing the stability and financial resources of the much larger nonprofit.

Olympic Peninsula uses Applied Behavior Analysis, a system where therapists tailor programs individually for each child in an attempt to help improve behavioral issues.

The therapists determine goals for each child. They then meet one-on-one with the child and work to improve those specific outcomes.

For some kids the goals may be as basic as speaking. A common problem for children with autism is trouble speaking or initiating conversation, even with their own parents.

Many of these kids are nonverbal. They won’t speak at all. Hartnett told the story of one of these kids.

He went to therapy multiple times a week at the center. Eventually, through therapy, his therapists were able to get him to open up during sessions, but as soon as he left, the silence would return.

His mom could hear him in the room talking.

His mom “was so frustrated. (She said) ‘I know he can do it,’ ” Hartnett said.

Then one day, the work paid off. He started talking not only in sessions, but to his mother as well.

“Now he is just a chatterbox,” Hartnett said.

For some of the kids, the goals aren’t so overwhelming as saying their own names or talking. Some of the kids just need to focus on social interaction, such as initiating conversation or knowing what is and isn’t okay to ask people.

Caleb Yost, 12, was officially diagnosed with autism when he was 6 years old. He goes to Olympic Peninsula Autism Center three times a week for three hours each visit.

When I met Caleb, he was reading a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” When I entered the room, he stood up and introduced himself, shaking my hand.

When he introduced himself, the impression he gave was that of an articulate and friendly young man. Meeting Caleb in a different setting, it wouldn’t strike most people that he didn’t speak until he was 6 or 7 years old.

For most of his childhood, Caleb struggled to make friends. He is in sixth grade, and he’s been working with therapists at the autism center for nearly a year.

“Caleb’s never really had a friend until this year and until this center and until this therapy,” said his mother, Jennifer Yost. “(That is) something that he never really had, and I never really thought that he could have.”

While Caleb visits three times a week, that number isn’t realistic for all children and their parents.

Setting aside the logistical hardship of getting kids to and from appointments along with school and other activities, money is often the biggest stumbling block.

Applied Behavior Analysis isn’t cheap, and many insurance providers don’t make it easy for families to get coverage.

For military families, TRICARE provides coverage for this sort of therapy, but for civilian families forced to pay out of pocket, it can be hard.

The Pooles can only afford to send their son Michael to therapy once a week because their insurance won’t cover his sessions.

They are in the process of appealing, hoping to prove Michael’s treatment is a medical necessity.

In the summer, when Michael wasn’t in school, the Pooles committed to extra sessions, so he was going twice a week instead of once.

“If you were to hurt your knee in an injury, would you spread your physical therapy out for a year of one physical therapy appointment a week, or would you want to hurry up and get in there and get your knee better,” Hartnett said. “That’s how you have to kind of look at ABA therapy, as intensive and continuous and goal-driven, so that you have an exit plan.”

According to Michael’s mother, Lisa, even over the short period of summer vacation, the extra sessions showed a steeper slant of improvements in Michael’s progress charts.

More and more insurance company’s are beginning to offer coverage for applied behavior therapy, and in January, Medicaid in Washington is set to help cover the treatment for lower income families.

Hartnett said Olympic Peninsula Autism Center has had to turn away seven or eight families that inquired about the program due to the cost of the treatment and lack of insurance coverage.

They are in the accreditation process with the state as an official provider, which would allow them to accept Medicaid and open their doors to a number of families they were previously unable to treat.

Hartnett said they hope to have the process completed when coverage kicks in Jan. 1.

For Lisa Poole and other families who can’t get coverage, the future is full of hope.

“There is so much potential in these individuals. They are locked inside bodies that don’t work right, but they can learn,” Poole said. “My son can learn. He’s just behind, but he’s getting there. He’s making progress. Never give up on these individuals.”

The recent merger with Easter Seals and the increases in Medicaid and insurance coverage for therapy should have a beneficial effect on the center’s services.

Entering 2013 and its second year of operation, Olympic Peninsula Autism Center will be looking to expand its coverage to families previously unable to benefit.

For Lisa Poole and other families who can’t get coverage, the future is full of hope.

“There is so much potential in these individuals. They are locked inside bodies that don’t work right, but they can learn,” Poole said. “My son can learn. He’s just behind, but he’s getting there. He’s making progress. Never give up on these individuals.”

 

 

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