Autism Center Lauded at Grand Opening Celebration


Photo of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaking at the grand opening of the Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks at the grand opening ceremony of the Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment.


July 7, 2010 – A grand opening celebration was held today for the new Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was on hand to welcome the opening of the new Center, which began operating Jan. 4 in its new facility at 611 N. Fountain Street on the grounds of the former Washington School at the corner of Middle and Mill streets in Cape Girardeau.

Since its opening, the Center has completed more than 35 evaluations/assessments and has additional appointments scheduled through August, according to Connie Hebert, director of the Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment.

Before the new facility was completed, the Center began accepting appointments on Nov. 9 at its temporary location at 920 Broadway. Its diagnostic team includes a full-time licensed clinical psychologist and a part-time speech language pathologist. The facility will add a part-time board certified behavior analyst this month. The three clinicians plan to begin conducting therapeutic activities in the fall with support from practicum students in various Southeast departments, Hebert said.

“This is an impressive number of clients to be evaluated and processed by one team in a rather short amount of time,” she said, adding evaluations require from four to 16 hours, depending on each case.

The new facility is an 11,582-gross-square-foot, one-story, brick building with a metal roof designed by Mackey Mitchell Architects. The new center houses 14 small and large diagnosis/therapy rooms with observation capabilities for family members, clinicians and students. Several therapy rooms were specifically designed for music therapy, occupational therapy and life skills training. It also features a University classroom, three conference rooms, and a multipurpose room, library, respite and quiet rooms.

The Center includes a sensory room and an occupational therapy room to address the activity levels and potential sensory needs of clients; a life skills training room that allows staff to teach personal care needs across the lifespan; and a playground that includes a musical instruments panel, slides, swings and climbers. The building also features a camera system that allows staff to record as well as broadcast activities from therapy rooms to select conference rooms in the building, a beneficial component for training and professional development.

Construction materials and finishes for the building were chosen to create a welcoming environment for the autistic population being served there, Hebert said.

“The building was designed with the needs of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in mind,” Hebert said. “We selected a neutral color theme; carpeting and rubberized flooring to accommodate different sensory needs, among other features.

“Our building is a comfortable place to work and play,” Hebert said. “Staff, clients, families and visitors all comment on the comfort and amenities. Many comment on the apparent thought and planning that went into creating a building that would serve multiple purposes and that is accommodating to individuals across the spectrum of Autism as well as across the lifespan.”

The center also provides conference and training space to be used for parent education, staff meetings and University instruction, and the site on which it was built allows for future expansion to the north, Hebert said.

The facility brings together four institutions that provide services at the center – Southeast University, TouchPoint Autism Services-Southeast Project, The Tailor Institute and The Thompson CenterᾰSoutheast Outreach for Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention.

“An efficient design of the facility by Mackey Mitchell Architects and construction by Zoellner Construction Company allows all four entities to make services available in one location – so children only need to acclimate to one building and one design – a plus for individuals with Autism,” she said.

“It is through this collaboration that we plan to address the stated purpose for funding this Center in southeast Missouri and to expand the services available to families and individuals dealing with Autism Spectrum disorders,” Hebert said.

Hebert said the Center also collaborates with other agencies to meet the needs of the autism community in southeast Missouri, including those in mental health, medical, education, recreation and employment services. She said the Center provides training, increased awareness, professional development and consultation to many of these organizations as well, including school districts, the Regional Center, counseling centers, private counselors, SADI, Headstart and preschools, First Steps, Parents as Teachers, and Alternative Opportunities.

The $2.6 million facility was funded by the Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative. In addition, $494,000 in operating and start-up funds for the Center were allocated during fiscal 2009 and renewed annually through the Department of Mental Health.

The mission of the Center, as outlined in its contract with the Department of Mental Health-Division of Developmental Disabilities is to reduce the amount of time individuals are placed on waiting lists for diagnostic services, provide critical diagnostic information to families, including appropriate referrals for services; and provide intervention services and advocate in the community of the children it serves, Hebert said.

“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 relentless support, this project would not have been possible.”

Dobbins also said Sen. Crowell attended several planning sessions and strongly encouraged the partners to work together so 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.

“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 132 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 were 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, then employed by the University’s Regional Professional Development Center.  Hebert became Project Coordinator in February 2007.

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 (now TouchPoint Autism Services); 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 the fall of 2008, Hebert was named director of the Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment, and was appointed by Nixon to the Missouri Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Ground was broken on the new facility on January 23, 2009.

Cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of the Southeast Missouri State University Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment are from left, Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University; Connie Hebert, director of the Center; David Russell, interim commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education; Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon; Brad Bedell, president of the Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents; and Missouri Sen. Jason Crowell.