Southeast Breaks Ground on Autism Center

Photo of officials participating in a ground breaking ceremony for the Autism Center.

From left are Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University; State Rep. Steve Hodges; State Rep. Clint Tracy; Former Missouri First Lady Betty Hearnes; State Sen. Jason Crowell; Brad Bedell, president of the Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents; Connie Hebert, interim director of the Southeast Mssouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment; Julie Kaufmann, director of the Office of Autism Services, Missouri Division of Developmental Disabilities; Myra Bax, director of the Judevine Center for Autism, Southeast Missouri; Elaine Buessink, director of the Tailor Institute; Dr David Crowe, founder and CEO of the Tailor Institute; Rebecca Blackwell, executive director of the Judevine Center for Autism; and Taylor Crowe of the Tailor Institute.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,

Jan. 23, 2009 – A ground breaking ceremony was held today, marking the start of construction on the future Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment.

The Center will be located on the grounds of the former Washington School at the corner of Middle and Mill streets in Cape Girardeau.

The Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents in September approved the final conceptual design for the 11,582-gross-square-foot center to be located on a grassy area adjacent to the school building in an area formerly serving as a playground. The design, provided by Mackey Mitchell Architects, is based on a conventional one-story, brick construction with metal roofing.

Connie Hebert, interim director of the Autism Center, said the space allows for future expansion to the north, adding that construction materials and finishes for the building have been chosen to create a welcoming environment for the autistic population who will be served.

Estimated cost of the project is $2.6 million, which includes a 15.5 percent contingency. Funding for the center — $2.6 million — will come from the Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative. In addition, $494,000 in operating and start-up funds for the Center has been allocated for fiscal 2009 through the Department of Mental Health.

“I want to thank state Sen. Jason Crowell for leading the effort to secure both the capital and operational appropriations,” said Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University. “Without his unrelentless support, this project would not have been possible.”

Dobbins also said Sen. Crowell attended several planning sessions and strongly encouraged the partnership with Southeast, the Judevine Center for Autism-Southeast Project and The Tailor Institute so that one facility could address the whole spectrum of autism diagnosis and treatment.

“Autism affects so many families in our state, and it has been my goal to make sure that a helping hand of resources is available throughout Missouri,” said Sen. Crowell. “By increasing diagnostic and treatment options, we are helping the families whose daily lives are impacted by autism. I’m especially excited about the life bettering impact to come from the Southeast Missouri Autism Center, which will be an invaluable new resource for the estimated 900 affected children in the region,” Crowell continued.

The new center will house numerous small and large diagnosis/therapy rooms with observation capabilities for family members, clinicians and students, and  several therapy rooms were specifically designed for music therapy, occupational therapy and life skills training. The facility will bring together four institutions that will provide services at the center  – Southeast, Judevine® Center for Autism-Southeast Project, The Tailor Institute and The Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri – Columbia, — in addition to providing conference and training space to be used for parent education, staff meetings and University instruction.

“While it has not been explained, the increase of the number of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder cannot be ignored, especially in the Southeast region of Missouri where we have seen a 107 percent increase from 2003 to 2007 in school age identification alone,” Hebert said. “The presence of a diagnostic and treatment center at Southeast Missouri State University will not only allow the state to address the needs of this growing population, but will provide a way for Southeast Missouri State University to contribute to the field of research and expand academic programming related to preparing professionals across disciplines.  Our Center will uniquely feature a partnership between regional service providers and the University as a way to further collaboration for improved outcomes in Missouri, allowing individuals with autism and their families to access assessment and treatment more effectively and efficiently.”

As approved by the Missouri General Assembly in 2007, the Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative included $2.6 million for an Autism Center at Southeast. When Southeast became aware of the state’s planned appropriation, a committee was created to explore the development of an Autism Center. Members of the committee are Dr. Marcia Brown-Haims, associate professor of communication disorders at Southeast, College of Health and Human Services; Dr. Kimberly Swedberg, special education consultant with Southeast’s Regional Professional Development Center; and Hebert, interim director of the Autism Center. This committee also was joined by Dr. Matthew Stoelb of the Thompson Center, who provides services to families in the southeast region.

The process continued in March 2007 when Hebert went to Jefferson City, Mo., to participate as a Southeast representative in the Autism Rally held at the state capitol, sharing in the celebration of legislative support for diagnostic and treatment efforts for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Missouri. In April 2007, the formation of the Missouri Blue Ribbon Panel on Autism, made up of 16 members, including two state senators, professionals from various related fields and family members of individuals with autism, was announced. The Panel was charged with reporting to the Missouri State Senate on the state of autism in Missouri, including their recommendations for improving state systems, structures and policy to improve the future for people with autism in Missouri.

Also in 2007, a committee was created to visit and explore the development of an Autism Center in southeast Missouri and to inquire about operations and facilities. Sites visited included: The Thompson Center; the Kennedy Center, Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Vanderbilt University; the Judevine® Center in St. Louis; the Kelly Autism Center at Western Kentucky University; and The Autism Program at Southern Illinois University. An additional visit was made last March to the Ozark Center for Autism at Freeman Hospital in Joplin, Mo. The visits allowed the committee to begin creating a draft outlining the mission, personnel and facility requirements for the future.

In addition, several meetings were held with campus departments to discuss features of the center’s operations, Hebert said. Information from the visits was shared with members of the Advisory Panel in October 2007. The Advisory Panel includes representatives of parents and families of individuals with autism, advocacy and support groups in the region, service providers in the region and school districts. In November 2007, two public forms were held with invitations being extended throughout the region to parents and families of individuals with autism and to district personnel and other service providers. Feedback and input from these forums concerning priorities for services to individuals with autism and their families provided needed information to assist the University committee in shaping a first draft proposal.

In December 2007, the Missouri Blue Ribbon Panel on Autism made 36 recommendations as a roadmap for improving the state of autism in Missouri, and in February, 2008, Hebert became the project coordinator for the Southeast Autism Center. The Advisory Panel reconvened in February 2008 to review the first proposal that focused on a diagnostic and treatment center.

After that meeting, area service providers began discussing the potential for a collaborative effort that would reduce duplication of services, reduce wait lists for clients and assist families in accessing support more effectively and efficiently by sharing a facility among the four collaborative partners.

On June 24, 2008, former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt created the Missouri Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Office of Autism Services. Hebert says the Commissioner of Higher Education will be a member of the commission, and one of the commission’s charges is to develop a recommendation for enlisting higher education institutions to ensure support and collaboration in developing certification or degree programs for students specializing in autism spectrum disorder intervention.

In July, Hebert was named interim director of the Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment, and in September, was appointed by Blunt to the Missouri Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders.