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. 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, the 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 bring 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 St. 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 Medford center will be the first of its kind in the area. Thomann said the center's programs will largely focus on repetition to help clients learn very specific steps to exhibiting behaviors that will be beneficial to them throughout their lives.
“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. Thomann has seen it range from one year up to 15 years in the program. Overall, he said it is 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.”