Vincenzo Mirabitur, 4, of Allen Park held a plastic horse in his tiny hand, putting it inside a toy barn.
"Open the gate," he said, his brown cowboy boots poking out from beneath bent knees as he leaned toward the barn. "Oh, don't open the gate! I'm making the horse come back."
His speech therapist, Jill DeMan, played along Wednesday afternoon, echoing his own words. Then, she asked, "Can we put the horse inside the barn?"
"Ta da!" he said, following her direction. "Yee-haw!"
Hearing her son interact with the therapist brings joy to Vincenzo's mother, Meghan Mirabitur, 33. Her son has speech delays and is to undergo an autism evaluation next month at the new Exceptional Families Autism Center in Dearborn, the first center in the state to offer a full complement of autism medical and educational services — from evaluation and diagnoses to applied behavior analysis therapy; occupational, speech and physical therapy, social work and psychology services for kids from ages 1 to 18 — all in one place.
Occupational therapist Mary Cooper helps Jerry Endicott, 2, of Taylor put coins into a piggy bank during his occupational therapy at the Exceptional Families Autism Center in Dearborn on Wednesday October 11, 2017. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
The newly expanded 33,000-square-foot center is a collaboration between the Beaumont Center for Exceptional Families and the University of Michigan-Dearborn's Early Childhood Education Center, and includes a preschool program where children with autism can be included with typically developing children and experience what it's like to be in a mainstreamed classroom before they start kindergarten.
The demand for a center like this is huge. About 50,000 people in Michigan are on the autism spectrum. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, now affecting as many as 1 in every 68 children.
And up until about five years ago, most insurance companies in Michigan didn't pay for the most effective form of autism treatment, applied behavior analysis therapy, or ABA therapy. That meant only families who could afford to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket were able to get services for their kids, said Dr. Susan Youngs, medical director of Beaumont's Center for Exceptional Families.
"ABA is unique in the sense that it’s very intensive, it’s one-on-one and it’s super good at evaluating where a child’s gaps are in development and then systematically remediating that so that on the other side of it, you don’t have a child who has splinter skills," Youngs said. "It really systematically works through those gaps and teaches kids social skills, and pretend play and social communication and cognitive skills as well.
"Kids with autism by definition do a lot less incidental learning and have to be systematically taught things, and there’s no better way to do that than with ABA. There’s zero comparison."
When autism insurance reform legislation was enacted in 2012, most Michigan families with autistic children who couldn't pay out of pocket for ABA therapy suddenly could get their kids the help they needed, but there weren't enough centers to properly diagnose those children and there weren't enough therapists to treat them using ABA.
A life skills apartment space used to help people with autism to live independently and manage a household is seen at the Exceptional Families Autism Center in Dearborn on Wednesday October 11, 2017. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
"At that time, our situation was that we didn’t have room within our own building," Youngs said.
The Center for Exceptional Families added 13,000 square feet at a cost of $2.5 million "so we could complete the picture and do state of the art comprehensive care for kids with autism," Youngs said. "We had all the pieces — medical personnel who could follow the kids clinically over a lifetime working collaboratively with our pediatric rehabilitation therapists in OT, PT and speech. Now, we can apply the applied behavior analysis component, which is so vital and I've been dreaming about it for 19 years.
"And what makes this extra, extra special is that in our same building is the University of Michigan-Dearborn's early childhood education center, which is a teaching lab for U-M Dearborn students who are going to become early childhood educators. And our kids now who have autism will be able to simulate an inclusive education environment in preschool prior to being launched in their own school districts because our ABA techs will be able to help them get those experiences."
The goal, said Michelle O'Connor-Teklinski, assistant director of the Center for Exceptional Families, is to be able to treat 100 children a day with ABA therapy at the center. But it'll take some time to get there, she said. First, more therapists need to be hired.
Youngs said the center plans to hire eight board-certified behavior analysts, and upward of 40 to 60 rehabilitation behavior technicians. Many of them, she said, will be trained through the collaboration with the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Teens with autism can come to the center and learn life skills in a simulated apartment, complete with a full bathroom, full kitchen and living area. There, they can practice doing things like manipulating the faucet to adjust the water temperature so they'll be able to take a shower, and try getting in and out of the bathtub without falling. They learn how to make a bed and do the dishes.
All of that, said Jason Majchrzak, supervisor of the Autism Center and a board-certified behavior analyst with the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is to ensure that young adults learn to live independently and have the skills to not only live on their own, but also will eventually be able to get jobs.
"We teach kids how to work independently, buy the things they need at the grocery store, put the groceries away, and how to get them back out when it's time to cook a meal," he said. "Then, we show them how to cook a simple nutritious meal, do laundry, clean the bathroom."
On the walls of the center are colorful prints of paintings by Nick Bair, 24, of Canton. Bair has autism and was treated for years by Youngs, though he never received the ABA therapy.
Bair has always loved art, and took many classes growing up to learn new techniques and develop his skills as a painter, said his mother, Christina Bair.
After a family trip to Africa, where Nick Bair was captivated by the animals he saw, he painted more than two dozen pictures. The Exceptional Families Autism Center asked for prints of about 15 and paid him for his work.
"I’m thinking about animals in the world, and the animal kingdom and the planet Earth," Bair said of the images on display at the center. Elephants, he said, are his favorite because of the sound they make, because "they're strong and smart" and "because they have long nostrils called trunks that kind of look like vacuum suckers."
He signs his name beneath each painting with a sketch to the right of his name of a tiny elephant. Bair now has a job at a grocery store and continues to take art classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Some children who get help from the autism center, like Jerry Endicott, 2, of Taylor, haven't been diagnosed with autism, but need services for other developmental delays.
A halo of blond curls rimmed Jerry's head as he leaned over a red plastic piggy bank Wednesday afternoon, dropping coins into it.
Jerry gets therapy at the center for motor skill delays as well as speech and language delays. His occupational therapist, Mary Cooper, sat on the floor beside him in the autism center's sensory gym, urging him to keep going.
"One, two," she counted as the coins plunk into the bank, clapping when he got them all inside. She said he usually has social anxiety and cries during therapy. But Wednesday, he was calm. That's progress, Cooper said.
Meghan Mirabitur said she's seen progress with her son, too.
With just a few months of speech therapy at the center, Vincenzo Mirabitur is using complete sentences. He used to point at things he wanted and could say one word at a time.
"His speech therapist at school said he's like a totally different kid because he's done so well," Mirabitur said.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
FIND OUT MORE
To learn more about the new Exceptional Families Autism Center in Dearborn — whether it's questions about whether your child qualifies for services, or you're interested in a job or would like to know about support group meetings, call 313-996-1951 or go online to Beaumont.org/cef.
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