St. Gerard House seeks to expand local autism services

EARLY INTERVENTION: With early and intensive applied behavior analysis therapy, says Caroline Long, executive director of St. Gerard House, research has shown that 47% of children are able to integrate with their peers, and the lifetime cost of care is reduced by two-thirds. Photo courtesy of St. Gerard House

For the nearly 500 families served by St. Gerard House, more space would be welcome. And, if it wouldn’t be too much to ask, a more compact campus would make life easier.

This is the beginning of a wish list that’s just being assembled by the staff and board of the Hendersonvillebased facility, which offers intensive education and therapy to help children on the autism spectrum realize their potential.

“We’re just at the very, very baby stage of this,” says Julia Buchanan, the organization’s development director.

This first stage, funded by a $45,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Henderson County, will fund a feasibility study, says Maurean Adams, chair of the strategic planning committee. “We’re following in the footsteps of other groups who have done this already,” she notes. “ABC of NC built an $8 million campus two years ago in Winston-Salem.”

Adams doesn’t know yet how much St. Gerard House will need to raise, or even what a new campus would look like; at this point the focus is on identifying funders and figuring out exactly how the organization will look once the campaign is finished.

“We’re looking at several years to do this,” she explains.

The center now operates out of four buildings on the campus of Immaculata Catholic School, plus two more buildings off campus; Executive Director Caroline Long and other staffers hope a capital campaign will help them consolidate and expand. Currently, 34 children come to St. Gerard each day instead of attending public school, but at any given time, there are more than 100 families on the waiting list, and most wait more than a year to obtain services. The situation is pretty much the same at similar facilities in the area, says Long.

St. Gerard House serves eight counties in Western North Carolina, and some parents travel more than an hour each way every day to bring their children to the center, notes Long. “We serve anybody who wants to drive here. We have people from Rutherfordton and Forest City.”

Starting early

Today, roughly one in 54 children is on the spectrum, according to Autism Speaks, a New York City-based nonprofit. They display a wide range of symptoms and abilities, characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

In the early 2000s, Long’s two children, Liam and Bridget, were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Now 19 and 18 respectively, they received applied behavior analysis, a kind of intensive therapy, early on that helped them learn the skills that have enabled them to become more independent. Long started St. Gerard House in 2010, in two small donated rooms, to give other families access to the services that hers had found so valuable.

Applied behavior analysis is now considered the standard therapy for helping children with autism spectrum disorder reach their full potential. According to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, numerous studies over the last 30 years have shown ABA to be effective in increasing positive behavior, reducing negative behaviors and teaching new skills.

In many cases, children need more than 20 hours a week of one-on-one therapy, beginning before they’re 4 years old. But it’s effective, which is why parents are so eager to enroll their children.

Essential skills

When children stop receiving treatment, however, they can lose some of their hard-earned gains. So when COVID-19 hit in March, the entire ABA team at St. Gerard became certified for telehealth services and then made sure that each family had the technology to support virtual sessions.

“You can’t really prepare for something like COVID-19,” notes Long. “You just do the best you can when it hits.”

Until about three years ago, ABA wasn’t being consistently covered by insurance in North Carolina, she says, and it must still be approved by a physician. Since then, the demand has grown even stronger.

With early and intensive ABA therapy, Long says,  research has shown that 47 percent of children are able to integrate with their peers, and the lifetime cost of care is reduced by two-thirds.

Of course, not all children with autism need such early, intensive therapy, and St. Gerard offers services for them as well.

“A lot of children coast through up until about second grade, when social skills become more complicated,” Long explains. “That’s when they start to have problems, because they don’t have those skills.” The one-on-one therapy enables children to practice these skills with a therapist.

A sea change

St. Gerard also offers services for high school students and young adults. “There’s very little help for people once they leave school-based services,” says Long.

Equipped with an industrial kitchen, St. Gerard’s Feed the Need program offers prevocational training in both culinary skills and gardening, plus job coaching for those no longer in high school. “We’ve moved the culinary classes online for now, and it’s been even more successful than we anticipated,” she says.

The center also offers family groups, which went from monthly to weekly meetings when COVID-19 hit, using Zoom. “We had more than 100 people on the call last week,” says Long. “People really need the support right now.” In compliance with North Carolina’s phase two reopening, some one-on-one services resumed June 1.

Still, no one knows how long St. Gerard’s proposed expansion may take, because the organization hasn’t attempted anything on this scale before, she adds.

Nonetheless, both Long and Adams are dreaming big.

“I do know one thing,” says Adams. “When we’re done, it will be a sea change for families that aren’t getting the services they need.”



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