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Bluegrass Center for Autism Gives Families Hope

Writer: Leigh Harrington

Imagine being told that your child will never speak, then one night you sit down with them to read a book only to hear their quiet, small voice say “mom” for the first time.

“He just looked over and said mom and I guess she lost it,” says Bluegrass Center for Autism Executive Director Paul Kichler. “I guess she never thought she would hear his voice.”

Stories like this from the Bluegrass Center for Autism (BCA) make the countless hours of speech, occupational and physical therapy worth every minute. The secret of their success is their one-on-one therapy model and an outpouring of support from the community. What started as a handful of concerned parents of children with disabilities in a church basement in 2010, grew in 2012 to become the rebranded Bluegrass Center for Autism with two locations.

The Center has a staff of more than 70 teachers and therapists. Student ages at the center range from 2 to 21, with the younger students (ages 3-11) at the Kosair Charities East Campus in Jeffersontown and the older students (ages 12-21) at the Mid City Campus in the Highlands. A new playground was completed last fall at the Kosair campus that addresses the special needs of the children and was partially sponsored by the city of Jeffersontown.

“It’s wonderful because J-town absolutely rallied around Bluegrass Center for Autism to make this happen,” Kichler says. “We are forever grateful to J-town for recognizing the need, addressing it and getting it done.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every 68 children are identified with autism spectrum disorder, which is why the center decided to concentrate specifically on autism. Their unique model of one instructor with one child allows each student to work on the skills and behaviors that need the most attention. It’s a model that is cost prohibitive in most mainstream schools, but Kichler said the center has found a way to make it possible.

“It’s amazing to see what these kids are capable of when given the opportunity to have the one-on-one model,” Kichler says.

In a traditional school setting many of the behaviors that are common with autism may result in a child being sent out of the classroom or the need for resources that are not covered by the budget. The center’s private, non-profit status means that they are not limited by the learning objectives that public schools must cover each day.

“We can take as much time as we need to focus on behaviors,” Kichler says.

If a child is unable to sit for more than a few seconds at a time, the staff at BCA can use positive techniques to work with them to extend that. The center only uses evidence-based curriculum, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in an effort to focus on developing communication, academic, social and life skills for its students.

BCA loosely follows the Jefferson County Public School schedule to make it easier on families with multiple children. Their day starts at 8:45 a.m. and ends around 3:30 p.m. While the center uses a one-on-one approach, staff rotate about every 30 minutes to expose the children to different teachers and personalities.

“It would be exhausting for one child and one staff to be together all day,” Kichler says. The children also have opportunities to play with one another to build their social skills and just be kids.

There is an art to designing the classrooms at BCA. While each classroom may have only three to five children in it, the rooms must be arranged not only by age group but by ability and sensitivities. For example, some autistic children are sensitive to loud sounds while others enjoy making a lot of noise.

While Kichler says that early intervention is typically preferred, it is never too late to seek help for an autistic child. For example, teaching any teenager to fold their laundry or make their bed can be challenging, however it is a necessary life skill that many autistic teens must tackle in preparation for a residential placement later in life.

“We have a little apartment in our upper campus so the kids can learn how to sweep the floors and clean the dishes,” Kichler says.

The older students may also learn basic job skills if that is a goal. An area of specific interest to most families is simply learning how to act appropriately in public so they feel more comfortable going out to eat or to the store.

As you can imagine, such intensive therapy is expensive, which Kichler says was a big obstacle in the early years. The $26,000 per student tuition didn’t even cover the salaries. Two years ago, the center hired a part-time insurance specialist and now much of the tuition is covered for about 90 percent of the families.

BCA is not your typical school as it is their goal to help students gain the tools they need within a year or two so they can graduate to the mainstream educational system.

“We’re obviously not looking to cure autism because there is no cure,” Kichler says. “We just want to treat the symptoms that are aligned with autism so we can help these kiddos reach their maximum potential to be out in the community and being in a typical developing world.”

Kichler has big dreams for the future of BCA, including making it the flagship center in Kentucky for information about autism and services. He also hopes that one day they will be able to serve all their students in one building, make room for more children and expand their job and vocational services for the older students and young adults.

For more information about BCA or the enrollment process visit the center’s website at bluegrasscenterforautism.org.

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