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Highlands Hospital Offers Welcoming Environment for Individuals with Autism
By Daniel Casciato

Several years ago, it was identified through a community needs assessment that Fayette County was in need of additional resources for individuals living with autism. Research showed that out of the 41,742 children ages 5 to 24 in Fayette County, approximately 444 will have some form of autism based on current medical statistics. As a result, Highlands Hospital created the Regional Center for Autism (HHRCA) with the goal of serving those in the region with effective, ongoing treatment and hope.

At that time, Highlands Hospital CEO, Michelle Cunningham began researching the programs that were available and searching for organizations that the hospital could partner with to the address the need. She reached out to the Autism Development Solutions office at Cleveland Clinic Children's.

"We then partnered with them as an affiliate site to begin the planning stages of what would become HHRCA," says Jordan Morran, Director of Autism Services for the HHRCA. "Through the affiliation with the Cleveland Clinic, we would be able to offer a state of the art program to children in our area."

The school opened its doors on September 1, 2011 with four students and today it provides quality education to sixteen students, ages 5 to 17, from five school districts.

"We offer a year round, licensed, private school for children ages 5-21," says Morran. "Each student received individualized programming and ABA—applied behavior analysis—therapy in a 1 to 1.4 therapist to student ratio. Each classroom is supervised by a licensed PA teacher."

What makes HHRCA unique compared to other centers for autism is its affiliation with Cleveland Clinic. According to Morran, this affiliation has provided the center with a wealth of research based practices and curriculum.

"We run a true ABA Program with skilled staff implementing the programming," she says. "Students work one-to-one or one-to-two with a Classroom Behavior Therapist. These therapists must have a degree in education, psychology or a related field and undergo a strict training process provided by Cleveland Clinic."

Highlands Hospital offers intensive treatment through the exclusive use of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to provide children on the spectrum with the highest likelihood of success. The evidence-based, data-driven methodology of ABA has been proven effective through extensive research, showing great benefit to individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.

"At HHRCA, we understand that your children are a most treasured gift," adds Morran. "We strive to provide the best overall care for your child, addressing both academic and functional needs. We strive to help the family as a whole by providing monthly observations, home visits as well as additional conferences and collaboration with home based teams."

Looking ahead, Morran is very excited to see all that the center can do to help students and their families in the future.

"We have experienced steady growth in our five years of operation and have been able to provide assistance to children and families across the region of varying ability levels," she says.

Because of this growth, Highlands Hospital has recently purchased a former school building in Connellsville so it can open a new, larger location before the 2017-18 school year. Morran says that they are currently in the process of fundraising to renovate it in the near future and expand the program. "At this new facility we hope to provide more opportunities for current students as well as provide placement to other students in the area."

Possible Early Signs of Autism

According to the National Autism Association, a person with ASD might:

  • Not respond to their name (the child may appear deaf)
  • Not point at objects or things of interest, or demonstrate interest
  • Not play "pretend" games
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Want to be alone Have difficulty understanding, or showing understanding, or other people's feelings or their own
  • Have no speech or delayed speech
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
  • Have low to no social skills
  • Avoid or resist physical contact
  • Demonstrate little safety or danger awareness
  • Reverse pronouns (e.g., says "you" instead of "I")
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions

For more information, visit http://www.highlandshospital.org/services/autism-center.

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