Jennifer Smith remembers the fear and frustration as her family struggled to figure out why her two-year old son, Brandon, was not like other children. After taking him to appointment after appointment, Smith listened as doctors and therapists called her son “quirky,” or “strong-willed,” but she knew something else was going on.
“I kept on telling the doctors that he knows all the complicated stuff, but I can’t get him to do the easy stuff, like answer a question,” Smith said.
After enduring a year of uncertainty, Smith’s family finally received an answer to their questions at the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Eastern Illinois University, where Brandon was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder or autism, which is a group of complex disorders of brain development characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Brandon’s story is only one example of the many lives changed forever at the clinic, but now EIU is continuing their support and dedication to children with autism by opening its own Autism Center.
The Need for Answers
Smith, who does not know where her family would be without the expertise and dedication of the clinic staff, said the Autism Center would attract more families to EIU’s wealth of services, and help give these families the answers they are desperately searching for.
She remembers the day perfectly when EIU Professor Gail Richard diagnosed her son with an autism spectrum disorder.
“It was great to have someone understand him better than me, and I am his mother,” Smith said. “After the diagnosis I did not feel like my son was an anomaly. It turned out my son is just like a lot of other kids.”
With more and more children like Brandon being diagnosed with autism every day, Richard said it is fitting for EIU to continue their dedication to individuals with autism.
Richard, who has been diagnosing children with autism for more than 30 years, said the Autism Center will be an expansion of the existing Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic.
Right now, the clinic serves individuals with all communication handicaps who are diagnosed and treated by undergraduate and graduate students under the supervision of distinguished faculty members.
Since services for the clinic function also as a learning environment for students, Richard said they can’t strictly take clients with autism since students need to experience a wide variety of clients with different disorders.
An autism center will give these families more of priority since sometimes they have to wait a whole semester for an appointment at the clinic, she said.
“We have people coming all over the country because they heard about the faculty expertise here,” Richard said.
Not only will the center give priority to individuals with autism, but give extra time for faculty members and students to focus on these disorders, she said.
Graduate Students like Mallory Dunn and Clare Kilbride are passionate about working with children with autism, and currently serve patients who have autism at the clinic, but both students are eager to help lend their services to the center.
“We already serve a fairly large basis of clients with autism, but now we will have more resources to provide better therapy,” Dunn said.
Killbride agrees, and also said it is important for students to serve many different clients with autism because not one person with autism acts the same.
Plans for the future
Richard envisions more families being able to receive evaluations and more students serving clients with autism through therapy sessions. She also wants the center to offer night or weekend classes to parents and teachers, and she also envisions staff members conducting consultations for local school districts.
In the future, Richard said she would like the center to collaborate with the Office of Student Disability Services at EIU to help students with autism assimilate better into the college environment. With about 1 in 88 children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, Richard said there will be more students coming to universities with autism.
Like the speech-language-hearing clinic, Richard said the autism center will be self-sustaining facility since families will pay for their therapy sessions, but they need money to get the center started and pay for a staff. To raise money for the center, Eastern Illinois University is starting their first-ever crowdfunding campaign, she said.
Mike Murray, director of development at EIU, said the purpose of the crowdfunding campaign is to reach individuals that have no connection with Eastern, but recognize the importance of supporting a center focused solely on autism spectrum disorders.
Crowdfunding works by creating a network of individuals to send out information about the center to a handful of individuals through email or social media outlets, then the group will forward the information to others, and so on, he said.
Right now, Murray said they want to create an endowment that would fund the center’s operations on an annual basis. The center would cost about $125,000 a year to support a director, administrative assistant and graduate assistant.
Every reason to hope
Now, 15, Brandon has been attending therapy sessions at the clinic since he was three. Throughout the years of Brandon’s therapy, Smith said she knows that the faculty members and students will always be there for her family, and will be there for future families.
“I always know they have the best intentions toward my son,” she said. “And they truly care about him.”
Families like the Smith’s understand that opening up a center will not be easy, but they know what it will mean for families searching for help.
“Regardless of the answer, an answer is still good,” she said. “Going forward, we knew it wasn’t always going to be easy or fun, but we knew we had every reason to hope.”
If anyone would like to donate to EIU’s Autism Center, go to http://www.eiu.edu/crowdfunding/autism/.