MONROE, La.- Patience and persistence work their magic at the Autism Center at the University of Louisiana Monroe.
Kenda Soileau has seen that magic.
The speech-language pathology graduate student from West Monroe has been one of three master students who worked with a “tweens” group of children from fourth grade to high school.
“The best is the end-of-semester conference when I report to the parents their child has spoken 15 multi-syllable words,” she said. “The parents light up.”
But perhaps the deepest emotions come with adult clients. She had her first adult client this summer, through ULM’s Kitty DeGree Speech and Hearing Center, which also works with autistic clients.
“They are aware when they reach a goal,” Soileau said. “There are a lot of tears when an adult is involved.”
The Autism Center at ULM is one of six clinics the university operates that serve the needs of the community. Concerning autism, the need is growing rapidly.
In 2008, one in every 150 people was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. That has ballooned to one in every 59 today.
“It’s becoming more frequent,” said David Irwin, Ph.D., a ULM professor of speech-language pathology and director of the Autism Center.
Not that autism is more common or something has happened to increase the occurrence, Irwin said, “People are just more knowledgeable and we now have better testing instruments to diagnose it.”
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction skills, speech and language problems, and repetitive behaviors.
“There are very individualistic symptoms,” Irwin said. “The saying goes that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
While the root cause of the disorder is not known, Irwin wants it known that vaccines do not cause autism. “The study that found that falsified data,” he said. But the myth lives on.
“We have found that is does run in the family. Seventy-seven percent of identical twins will have autism. The rate is 33 percent in fraternal twins. There appears to be a hereditary factor,” Irwin said.
Many needs served through AC-ULM
Irwin directed an autism center at the LSU Medical Center in Shreveport from 2008-2009. He then retired, coming out of retirement in 2015 to establish a similar center at ULM.
“Many people have such trouble with access to services,” Irwin said.
In 2015, he wrote a grant through the Living Well Foundation to establish the ULM center. It opened in 2016.
Since March 2016, the center has handled 311 referrals. The referrals come from doctors, nurses, counselors, parents and teachers.
Once Irwin receives a referral, he schedules an evaluation. Three doctoral faculty members and one master’s faculty member conduct the evaluations. They consist of an in-depth interview with parents to understand the history of the client – what repetitive behavior have they seen, what level is the child’s speech development. That’s followed by an observation of the child by a faculty member.
“In every case, we provide parents with an evaluation report. Not all of our referrals have autism,” Irwin said.
If they do, however, the evaluator will assign one of three levels of severity and provide recommendations for treatment.
“We target areas of weaknesses and strengths,” Irwin said.
A referral to other agencies also will be part of the report.
The maximum cost of the evaluation is $50, but the fee slides based on income. There is no charge if the client has a Medicaid card.
“I didn’t want barriers,” Irwin said.
The Autism Center provides therapy services in a group setting for preschool children and tweens in cooperation with the ULM Occupational Therapy Program. A team of three graduate students works with the tweens, while a team of five works with the infants and toddlers.
Other clients are served at the Kitty DeGree Speech and Hearing Center, the ULM Occupational Therapy Clinic or other agencies.
Soileau and Irwin said when dealing with autistic children, concern for the family is constant.
“Parents are in the therapy room. Our preschool group has two-hour sessions. For the first hour, the parents can go to family counseling” at the ULM Family and Marriage Therapy Clinic, Soileau said. “They are in the room for the next hour.”
The counseling sessions help with the stress levels of the families in the rural and impoverished areas of Northeast Louisiana. In many cases, parents face enormous hurdles.
“For instance, a lot of schools do not have equipment or treatments for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Irwin said.
In addition to performing evaluations and providing treatment to some individuals, the ULM Autism Center provides continuing professional education in the form of workshops that feature nationally known speakers in the field. The next is Oct. 7. A new 15-credit-hour online program is offered to post-baccalaureate candidates who want to learn more. Irwin hopes the program will appeal especially to special education teachers.
At first, the clients served by the Autism Center were restricted to the eight area parishes served by the Living Well Foundation.
“The foundation has allowed us to expand,” Irwin said, with referrals coming from western Louisiana, Alexandria and Metairie.
And Irwin said discussions have begun to establish a program at ULM that would help autistic students transitioning from high school to the campus. In many cases, Irwin said, the students excel at their academic work but need help adjusting socially to campus life.
In her work at the Autism Center and the Kitty DeGree Clinic at ULM, Soileau has been able to log clinical hours required for her master’s degree in speech-language pathology. The work demands patience and persistence, and success comes in small steps.
“You must know your personality. I always wanted to help others. In this discipline, I can help everyone, from the child to the parent,” Soileau said.
There’s one more person she’s able to help with her field of study – her mother, who is an educator.
“I’m able to share with mom, who always wanted to help her kids with autism but did not know how,” she said.
For more information about the Autism Center at ULM, visit ulm.edu/autismcenter or email Irwin at email@example.com.