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It can be tough to find services for kids with autism spectrum disorder, so Middlesex Health decided to put them in one place
Hartford Courant - 9/19/2022
Autism and other developmental disorders require myriad services, whether they be diagnosis, speech therapy or dance therapy, and soon they will be available in one location in Essex, part of Middlesex Health.
“I have been very excited to start this project,” which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Annie Calamari, manager of Middlesex Health’s outpatient child and adolescent services.
“We are offering a lot of services in one location and right now those services exist in Connecticut, but it is very rare, if not very difficult, to find them all in one spot.”
The advantage of the new Mayer Center is that families can take advantage of the “gamut of services” at whatever point in their child’s development they need them, because autism and other disorders can become apparent at any age, Calamari said. The center primarily will serve children and teens from 3 to 18 years old.
Children younger than 3 are served by Birth to Three, a state-administered program that connects children with developmental delays to available services.
In fact, while infants can be diagnosed early, Calamari said, “It is really important to me that we also offer differential testing and identifying, because kids who are on the spectrum, especially at a young age, if they have severe trauma or are significantly ADHD, they are sometimes misdiagnosed” as being on the autism spectrum.
“We don’t want to treat kids with therapy that may not be helpful to them,” she said. “If they’re traumatized, behavior therapy may not be helpful to them. So we want to make sure we properly diagnose them and get them to the right services.”
For those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder, the “gold standard” of treatment will be used, known as applied behavior analysis. Certified behavior analysts and technologists will offer the therapy, she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six children are diagnosed with a developmental disability and about one in 44 in the United States are on the autism spectrum, which ranges from extremely mild to severe disability.
The Mayer Center will be staffed by a psychiatrist, social workers, physical and occupational therapists and others. There will be seven dedicated staff members with three contributing from other parts of Middlesex Health.
All of the therapy staff will be new, said Brian Taber, director of physical rehabilitation for the system, “to make sure that we’re offering the best care with the most trained individuals.”
Families also will be given attention, Calamari said.
“For some of these families, this might be the first time they’re hearing this diagnosis,” she said. The center plans on “supporting them through that and what that might mean, because it’s one thing to have your 3-year-old identified. It’s another thing to have your 13-year-old identified. Sometimes you have to change what you’re doing as a parent, too.”
It could be as simple as having a child wear a baseball cap when in the sun or in a brightly lit store because the child is light sensitive. The family may not have known that before.
“All these kids are going to be really unique and individual,” Calamari said. For some, “it’s going to be about getting them to brush their teeth and eat things that aren’t just orange. And that’s a really extreme example. And for some families, it’s going to be managing extreme temper tantrums because it’s hard to transition and shift from one task to another.”
All of the services will be offered with “compassion and patience, and truly trying to work with that family and those kids where they are in their understanding of the diagnosis in their space and time … and on that continuum of care,” she said.
“The magic of our center” is the ability for different specialists to collaborate and for families to receive their expertise in one location, Calamari said.
Some families may be in denial or embarrassed, Calamari said, or the child may feel like they will be stigmatized by their friends. One young teen was upset by her diagnosis, but then, as Calamari told the story, the girl said, “this explains so much about me though. I also feel really good to know that some of this isn’t all within my control, and there’s going to be new ways that I can learn to put things in my control.”
While the work can be difficult, there will also be opportunities for lighter activities, including a sensory gym. “We also have hopes to incorporate some fun,” including activities that aren’t covered by insurance but still are beneficial.
“So we’re hoping to be able to offer things like dance movement therapy and art therapy and maybe things like yoga,” Calamari said. “So we have a lot of creativity and ideas that we think will be really beneficial to these kids and these families.”
The wide range of services will include physical and occupational therapy, speech pathology and more, Taber said.
They will be available to any child with a developmental delay and work with “any team in the behavioral health side and be there for any of the needs that the children that come through for the autism services have,” Taber said.
“So that can be anything from mobility challenges or fine motor skills or sensory integration … speech delay,” to complement the behavioral therapists, including those who don’t qualify for Birth to Three, he said.
If young children “don’t have enough limitations to qualify them for Birth to Three, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need some services,” Taber said. The Mayer Center then could be available for mobility, sensory motor skills and feeding ability.
“That’s where the rehab staff would kind of jump in and potentially see a kid that is under that age of 3,” Taber said.
“Our goal is to be able to offer therapy to any child that is in need,” he said, because “maybe not quite as much as the autism realm, but pediatric therapy services in the state are also very few and far between. So we’re hoping that this center will be able to partner with the network of providers that are already caring for children in the area and … bolster the services that are available to support pediatricians.”
Calamari said early intervention is critical for those with developmental disabilities. “And while our state is small, it can be giant when you’re trying to access and navigate services, especially for your kid and never mind if you have two or several kids.”
The center is named for Sally and George Mayer of Essex, who gave a major gift toward the project. The 3,100-square-foot center will be located at Middlesex’s Essex Medical Building, 252 Westbrook Road, Essex, which is being renovated for a targeted Nov. 1 opening.
For more information and to donate to the Mayer Center, go to MiddlesexHealth.org/brighterfuture.
Ed Stannard can be reached at email@example.com or 860-993-8190.
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