30 Jun 2017

The Center of Hope

The Center of Hope

Author: Wings  /  Categories: Campus, Wings  / 

Sitting with a group of moms in the small office lobby of the Responding to Autism Center, Laurie Sarver recalls the moment that led her to this place. Her son Jacob was just three years old when her mom mentioned that something seemed not quite right. Jacob wasn’t behaving like other children his age. He seemed disconnected and his mood could go from calm and happy to a total meltdown in an instant. Sarver took him to his pediatrician, who suggested he be evaluated for a possible autism disorder. Heritage University alumna Christine Lindgren, director of the center, was a member of the evaluation team who had to tell Sarver the news that changed her family forever. Jacob was, indeed, autistic.

“Your whole world just kind of stops when you get that news,” Sarver said. “You don’t know what to do next. But Christine was there for us with support and information. The following week, we signed up for a parenting group.”

That was eight years ago. For Jacob and his entire family, the center and the other families that it serves have been a lifeline of support, hope and understanding.

Building comprehensive support and services for individuals with autism and their families is more than a career for Lindgren—it’s a passion. One that started early in her career when, as a newly graduated teacher, she took a job working with disabled children from birth to three years old at the Children’s Developmental Center in Richland, Washington. At that time there wasn’t a lot known about autism.

 “I was working with the kiddos who were thought to have behavioral disorders because they didn’t act like other children their age. I really enjoyed working with them,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about this thing called autism, to train and develop programs that would help these kiddos.”

Autism is a pervasive neurological developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to interact socially with other people. It affects their way of thinking. Their views of the world and the social cues that they receive are skewed differently. While there are some similarities in behaviors, such as repetitive behaviors and restricted interests, how the disorder manifests itself and the level of impairment vary from person to person. What causes autism remains a mystery, but over the past 20 years more has been learned about the human brain and about the disorder. In particular, how important early intervention is to help children develop into their best selves.

“Individuals with autism can be very high functioning, intelligent people who are capable of working and having happy, healthy lives,” said Lindgren. “They have a lot to contribute to our society.”

Lindgren’s desire to do more to help the children in her care led her to Heritage University, where she earned a Master of Education. For her thesis she researched intervention theories for working with autistic children to help them learn coping skills to manage their condition, and used her research in her classroom at the Children’s Development Center. One of the intervention methods that she discovered during her research was Relationship Development Intervention (RDI). This behavioral treatment involves the entire family in the treatment of the child with the goal of helping him or her build a personal relationship through social connections, emotional bonding and shared experiences.

 “RDI is a parent-led therapy. It incorporates a lot of parent teaching in classes and in family support,” she said. “We think of the individuals surrounding the child as teams. There’s the family team and the teacher team in the schools, all working together. Autism is such a pervasive disorder that you need a pervasive approach.”

Lindgren was impressed with RDI. So much so that she went through the training needed to become certified in the program. Soon she came to the realization that the need for this kind of service was far greater than what she was providing to the relatively small number of families at the development center

Richland is located in the southeastern region of Washington State. While it is an urban area known for its prosperity and rapid growth, thanks in part to the Hanford nuclear site, services for autism diagnosis and treatment were lacking. Families had to travel 150 miles or more to take their children to Seattle or Spokane, and were often placed on months-long wait lists to get in to see a specialist. Convinced that she could be of service to the greater community, Lindgren left her position at the center and opened Responding to Autism Services. She started working as a consultant—providing autism screenings, consulting with school districts and working with families on in-home behavioral support. Lindgren put to work the grant writing skills she learned at Heritage and applied for funding through the Carson Kolzig Foundation, established by the Kolzig family in honor of their son who has autism. A few years and a few funded grants later, Lindgren got a call from the foundation with an interesting partnership proposal.

“They were interested in creating a brick-and-mortar location where families could come to for resources and quality services. That was my dream too,” said Lindgren.

They entered into the partnership and opened the Responding to Autism Center in March 2010. Today, the center serves more than 800 families throughout the central Washington region. They work with individuals of all ages, from two years old through adults. Services are provided on a sliding fee scale so that families from all economic levels can benefit. Lindgren is even working with some of her Spanishspeaking parents to expand services to serve monolingual families.

Helena Maple is one of the hundreds of moms who have come to depend upon the center to help their children and families. Maple’s son Tucker was three years old when his autism was diagnosed. The news was a shock wave that hit her and her family. Aside from the fear for their son’s well-being, they didn’t know what to do or what to expect down the road.

“When Tucker was diagnosed, I went into research mode. I read just about every book about autism that I could find. None of them helped,” she said. “I think the support began when I was sitting with other parents in the waiting room. Meeting with other parents who were going through what we were going through gave us hope.” Like Maple, Jenny Rast’s son Mathew was just a toddler when he was diagnosed. She and her family, including Mathew’s older sister, all got involved in the center’s family events.

“We could come here as a family and experience things like other families get to do, like going to the movies [the center partners with a local movie theatre to host movie nights for its families]. It is a safe haven,” she said.

For children like Matthew and Tucker, peer social skills classes held at the center help them build their individual skills. Matthew was five when he started going to these classes. He’s learned how to monitor and regulate his emotions. The training that his parents receive through the center means they can support what he is learning at home as well. The support has made a real difference in his life.

“Instead of going from OK to not OK and into a total meltdown in an instant, Matthew can verbalize what he is feeling and advocate for himself,” she said. “I don’t think our life or my son’s life would have been the same without the center.” It is a sentiment that is shared by Maple and Sarver. For her part, Lindgren can’t imagine a life spent doing anything other than what she is doing today.

“I feel so blessed that I get to see the little things that we so often take for granted. When you see a child do something, to take a developmental step, or an adult get his first job when he didn’t think he would ever be able to have one, seeing those things are beyond words,” she said

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