Sunday, May 25, 2008

Searching for an answer

Autism center provides research, support for families living with autism

Prompted by his mom, 6-year-old Jonathan Milligan shares his favorite color, “yellow,” and his favorite fruit, “banana.”

Next to Jonathan is his identical twin brother, Canyon Milligan. More reluctant to talk, Canyon quietly whispers, “red.”

The Milligan brothers enjoy taking family walks, going to kindergarten and watching “Thomas and Friends” after school. On the surface, the Milligan boys seem like every other kindergartner. Jonathan and Canyon, however, have autism, a condition that affects their social interactions and ability to communicate with others.

After the twins’ diagnosis at the age of 3, the Milligans moved from Fulton to Columbia to take advantage of the city’s greater variety of services for children with autism, including MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Founded in 2005, the center offers services for the diagnosis and treatment of autism.

Until recently, the center’s services were scattered across various offices and clinics on campus. In February, the center consolidated most of its services at a single facility on Portland Street near Columbia Regional Hospital.

The facility, which will have its grand opening and ribbon-cutting on April 27, is sensitive to the needs of children with autism, with toys, clean lines and few decorations.

The center will also offer tours of its new facility when it hosts the Autism Intervention Conference for professionals and family members from March 30 to April 1.

One-stop shopping for autism-related services is a big help to families like the Milligans. Autistic children typically need to visit a variety

of specialists on a regular basis, including physical therapists, speech pathologists and neurologists.

Recent studies indicate that as many as one in 150 children develop an autism spectrum disorder, which can range from a relatively mild condition called Asperger’s syndrome to severe cases in which the individual has sharply limited ability to communicate and interact with people.

According to Janet Farmer, director of the Thompson Center, the rates of autism have been steadily increasing for the past decade, but experts aren’t sure why.

“We’re certain that genetics plays a role in autism, but the thing that we’re not certain is which genes,” Farmer said. “Like many conditions or diseases, there is probably not just one cause, but some interaction between genes and environment in order to produce the outcome of autism.”

Researchers at the Thompson Center hope their findings will lead to improved diagnosis and interventions for autism, but to families like the Milligans, the center provides services that supply immediate support. Doctors usually recognize autism when a child is 3 or 4. At this point, the goal for most families and doctors is to help children function in everyday life.

“Dressing Jonathan used to be a chore,” Jenny Milligan said. “Through therapy, we discovered that he hates long sleeves because he doesn’t like to push them up. Understanding little things like this makes life so much easier from day to day.”

For many families, one of the main goals is to prepare their children to enter kindergarten at a developmental level similar to other students in the classroom.

One way to get children ready is through classroom simulations. Children with autism participate in a “mock” classroom, where specialists can identify the best way to support their learning and development.

Children can also interact with other children and practice the structure of a typical day at the Robert G. Combs Language Preschool at MU, a morning preschool program for kids ages 3 to 5 with communication and language difficulties.

“It really helped the boys, in a therapy setting, before becoming socially active, before they hit kindergarten where they have to go through that,” Jenny Milligan said.

Now, they just spend one hour a school day with specialists, and the rest of the time in their regular classroom.

The center also hopes to create an environment where individuals affected by autism can meet other children and families going through the same challenges.

“My hope for the Thompson Center is that it becomes a resource for families,” Jenny Milligan said. “And I think it will be the Center that the parents can go to and meet with others for support.”

Eventually, the center plans to provide counseling for families and siblings of children with autism as well as other education and support group opportunities.

Research, interventions and support groups typically focus on young children.

Currently, there is little programming available for adolescents and teens with autism. Farmer said the center hopes to change that by working with advocates in the community to identify funding sources and “launch some new initiatives for young people with autism so they can be more a part of the community.”

Jenny Milligan’s hopes for the boys are simple.

“I hope that Jonathan and Canyon can find their niche in society and be able to function on their own,” Milligan said. “I want them to be happy with who they are.”

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