Raising a child with autism can feel isolating and leave parents grasping for answers, but the truth is they are far from alone.
About one in 54 children in the country has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the CDC estimates that statistic to be one in 44 in Minnesota. Tony Thomann, the director of strategy and innovation at the Minnesota Autism Center, knows all too well the overwhelming feelings a parent can go through as they learn to navigate life with a child on the spectrum.
“It certainly can be a challenge,” said Thomann, who is a father of two children diagnosed with autism. “I didn’t know what to do at first because I wasn’t on the spectrum, but my children are who they are, and I was able to eventually gain skills to be able to assist them.”
The Minnesota Autism Center will be bringing its programs for children and youth with autism to the Medford, Owatonna and Faribault communities with a new location opening in Medford in the coming months. The new facility will provide a broad range of programs, including early intervention, life skills development, group learning and school readiness opportunities.
“Demand is large anywhere and everywhere, but we have particularly seen a lot of demand in the Owatonna area from families that are currently driving to our Eagan, Rochester, or Mankato locations,” Thomann said. “Medford’s proximity to both Owatonna and Faribault is geographically going to be really good for all communities.”
The new Minnesota Autism Center will be located at 118 South Main Street in Medford, with a tentative schedule to open in mid-November. The center will provide daily applied behavior analysis – or ABA – therapy for ages 18 months to 21-years-old.
“ABA is kind of the gold standard of day-to-day therapy,” Thomann said. “Our kids will come to the center for the day, receive therapy for the day, and continually acquire new skills to function day in and day out.”
Though there are opportunities in the area for children with autism to receive one-on-one coaching, such as the brain training sessions provided by the LearningRx cognitive center in Owatonna, the center in Medford will be the first of its kind in the area. Thomann said the programs at the center largely focus on repetition to help kids learn very specific steps to exhibiting behaviors that will be beneficial to them throughout life.
“It can be very nuanced between person to person, but the idea is we being to reinforce positive behaviors around different things they may struggle with,” Thomann said
He used examples of kids who are unable to stop hitting or sit still. They’ll try keeping their hands closer to themselves for a few seconds or sit in a chair for five seconds and then incrementally increase that with positive reinforcement to change the behavior, he said.
“Instead of saying that’s wrong, we try to show them how to deal with a stressor that creates the behavior in the first place,” he continued. “Sitting down for five seconds could be a big deal for someone who can’t sit still and just a little bit of that could help a child jump forward – sometimes it just can be a really hard process.”
Thomann said the center will open with 15-20 available slots, which he anticipates will fill up quickly. The participants will come to the center 40 hours a week, though some of the younger kids may come for just half days. Though Thomann knows the demand in the area will be higher than what they can initially provide, he said it will be important for them to gauge the need to determine next steps for services provided.
“This is one of those things where we have to walk before we can run,” Thomann said. “There’s always going to be more demand for what we can do than what we can provide, and we have to balance quality service and qualified staff. But this will help give us insight to what our next steps will be – perhaps provide the service in the home.”
The amount of time a child spends in the center’s programs will also vary case by case, as Thomann said he has seen it range from one year up to 15 years in the program. Overall, he said it is very dependent on what the family’s needs are and what the center can do for the child.
Most importantly, however, Thomann said they are excited about a chance to remind families and communities how special and wonderful these children truly are. They want to see the perspective change for people who may think a child with autism is “naughty” or not capable of doing certain things. Many people with autism are highly intelligent and capable of dealing with everyday life, but they just might have behaviors that are expressed in ways that need assistance, he said.
“It can be a difficult and hard process, but the first time a child who has never said a word asks for juice, it’s astonishing,” Thomann continued. “We have all seen that with babies, when they say it’s their first word – it’s such a miracle and a beautiful thing. When a 10-year-old does it, it’s beyond belief.”
Beyond the Yellow Ribbon members are beyond words when it comes to the level of support the Faribault and Owatonna communities showed for a recent care package drive.
In September, the local chapters asked community members for donations to support soldiers from the Second Battalion, 135th Infantry deployed to the Horn of Africa. Chapter leaders specifically sought items like toiletries, protein drinks or packets ,and gym equipment to ship to the troops.
“…I was very proud of our community and everyone who chipped in to make this happen,” said Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, who collected donations in Faribault for the groups’ first-ever drive. “It makes me feel good to know if the need arises in the future, the community is going to be there again. It shows people truly care and appreciate the work the military is doing, even in other countries, to protect our country and promote the peace.”
The two chapters together received over 50 energy drinks and another 1,000 drink mix packets, over 950 toothbrushes, about 110 tubes of toothpaste, 900 disposable razors and about 40 athletic bands or other exercise equipment. They also received other miscellaneous items like lip balm, floss and shaving cream.
The chapters combined to raised around $2,500 to purchase other items and pay for shipping. Many area businesses and organizations contributed cash donations or gift cards to the cause, but Dunn can’t count the number of individual donations because many dropped off items in the lobby. Even when collecting donations wasn’t on his mind, like when he stopped at the Morristown Community Center to chat with the Morristown Coffee Club members, someone caught him off guard by handing him a $100 bill on behalf of the club.
Both adults and school students gathered Friday morning in the Faribault Armory garage to sort the items and package the boxes for shipment. Sarah Frazier, Owatonna Beyond the Yellow Ribbon chair, will ship the six boxes to Africa.
Diane and Kevin Thompson previously helped with the annual veterans’ Thanksgiving meal through Jennie-O-Turkey Store, where they work. To show their support in a different way, they volunteered to help package the boxes for the troops.
“My husband and I enjoy supporting our troops and police force because in today’s society neither is appreciated very much, and my husband is a vet,” Diane said.
The youngest volunteer at the armory, 11-year-old Olivia Fisher, attends Faribault Middle School.
“Something that inspired me to volunteer here is that I just like to help people in any way that I can because I like doing good deeds,” Fisher said.
Bethlehem Academy seniors Jarrett Malecha, Brianna Radatz and Verity Wray-Raabolle also took time out of their day to help package boxes.
“Our teachers told us there was a service opportunity, and we had some free time,” Malecha said. “It’s kind of what’s taught at our school and in our families, to serve others.”
Added Radatz: “My brother-in-law is in the National Guard and stationed out of Faribault, so that’s the main reason I volunteered.”
Said Wray-Raabolle: “I think that it’s awesome to have an opportunity locally to help people who are far away. A little thing like this could make their week.”
That’s the way Jan Staton of Dundas describes her mom, the late Geraldine, “Jerry” Reuvers. Throughout her life, Reuvers’ love of animals and humans, and work with nonprofits including Rice County 4-H, made her a well-known asset of Rice County. After a long battle with Alzheimer’s, Reuvers, 96, died Oct. 4 at Three Links Care Center in Northfield.
“She was just a people person and was well-respected in the community and in her family,” said Staton.
Reuvers was born Geraldine Rose Wallace Aug. 9, 1924 in Northfield to Archie and Rose (Berg) Wallace. Growing up on the family farm, she rode her pony, Lady, to her country school no matter the weather and wrote stories about that experience.
After graduating from Northfield High School in 1941, Reuvers stayed on the family farm to milk cows. She married her husband, Ted, who lived across the road, in 1944. They began their marriage living on a rented farm in Faribault and bought the farm neighboring to the Wallace farm in 1950. Reuvers lived on the Dundas farm until 2011, when she moved to Cottage East in Northfield.
The Reuverses raised seven children: Sandy, Cheri, Barb, Gary, Jan, Greg and Jenny.
Cheri Albers of Northfield, the second oldest, remembers her dad installing swings in the barn so she and her sisters could occupy themselves when their mom milked cows. Her parents “really started out with nothing” early in their marriage, Albers recalls, but Ted worked a part-time canning job and worked full-time at Voegel Creamery.
“It was tough going but we always had a birthday cake and we never knew we weren’t rich because we were well-cared for,” Albers said. “[Mom] was always trying to make life better — for animals as well as people.”
Caring for others came naturally to Reuvers. During her childhood, Albers said her mom took in a homeless man who painted their building. He struggled with addiction, and his family had abandoned him, so he lived with the Reuvers for 25 years.
Jan Stanton of Dundas, who is in the younger half of Reuvers siblings, recalls when that her maternal grandfather was sick, her mother took care of him.
That caring spirit extended to Reuvers’ animals. Staton said her mom took pride in milking cows and considered it her job when women began entering the job market. Reuvers continued to milk the cows until her early 60s, when the dairy was sold. Staton remembers her mom leading each cow up the truck and giving them hugs before parting ways.
Though she was busy on the farm, Reuvers also devoted much of her time to various boards, organizations and volunteer opportunities.
Reuvers had a longstanding relationship with the Full-O-Pep 4-H Club, which she joined in her youth. As an adult, she became a club leader and often took the youth members out for pizza after meetings. That was a big treat, and children regarded Reuvers as the “group mom,” Staton said.
Ablers remembers her mom being clever as she designed Halloween costumes for the October 4-H meeting. Her favorite costume of her mom’s was a red union suit with a back flap upon which she hung a sign that read “Caution: gas leak.”
The Reuvers children participated in 4-H like their mother, who encouraged them to have a wide variety of interests. They entered a number of projects in the Rice County Fair like cow, beef cattle and horse showings as well as dog and shop projects, and landscapes. The girls were required to do a home ec project at the time, so they brought sewing, baking or cooking projects to the fair.
“I think it took two or three trips to get all our stuff down [to the fair],” Staton said. “I think [Mom] enjoyed it more than anybody.”
Even into her 70s, after her children had grown, Reuvers continued to work in the open class building at the Rice County Fair.
Apart from being a 4-H leader, Reuvers served on the Rice County Fair Board and the Water Quality Board, volunteered at the Northfield Historical Society, and participated as a member of the Farm Bureau and Dundas Study Club. She also volunteered as an election judge and served as Parent-Teacher Association president at Dundas School.
Paul Liebenstein served on the Bridgewater Township Board with Reuvers, who served as its clerk for 20 years. They were also neighbors.
“She was one of those hard-working farm women who could do anything and did do everything,” Libenstein said. “She was just a sweet person.”
Family and hobbies
While balancing her many interests and commitments, Reuvers made family a top priority.
“She was very supportive,” Staton said. “She would try to make any activity we were involved with and could still milk twice a day.”
Getting the whole family together was a big deal for Reuvers, who enjoyed gathering the generations. She collected remembrances of her various relatives, whether it was aunts in California or family close by.
“She loved history, too, and the connections of the families,” Albers said. “That was important to her that we knew who our great-grandmother was and who our second cousins were.”
In her spare time, Reuvers enjoyed gardening. Staton recalls her mom keeping a vegetable garden years ago, but in her later years, she became more invested in flower gardening. She also kept herself busy refurbishing furniture like chests of drawers, tables and desks from her home place.
Reuvers didn’t get a chance to travel much, but Staton took her mom on a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota when she turned 80. During the trip, they rode 50 to 60 miles on horseback and saw Mount Rushmore.
“That was a big highlight for her in her retirement years,” Staton said. “ … I thought she would be tired, but we toured around, and she was quite a trooper.”
Since Reuvers was a lover of the great outdoors, it’s fitting that her funeral took place on the Albers’ farm. Ablers said her mom always wanted any children visitors to have a good time on the farm, so the family offered hayrides.
“It was a beautiful day,” Albers said. “It was just like she planned it, I swear.”