At the recently opened Easterseals Central Illinois Autism Learning Center in Bloomington, where a ceremonial ribbon-cutting was held June 27, the special emphasis is on ‘learning.’
“As you walk inside, it really has the look and the feel of a traditional preschool setting,” says Jamie Severtson, a board-certified behavior analyst and vice president of behavioral health services for the Bloomington Easterseals Autism Learning Center.
Severtson also helps operate the Peoria Autism Learning Center, which has been located at 507 E. Armstrong in Peoria since 2012.
“We’ve got bookshelves and toys, and some individual tables where we can work with learners one-on-one, a center table, a circle time area, and a (paint scheme) that is really warm and inviting, accentuated with natural light. We’ve got a therapy gym, and an area where we can work with kids on communication and some of our occupational therapy goals. The center is also equipped with a waiting area and restrooms.”
The new autism center, which is geared to 3- to 5-year-old learners, is an extension of the current Easterseals building at 2404 E. Empire St.
Four underutilized rooms were demolished to create one larger space and what Severtson calls a “ready to learn” atmosphere, where one-on-one, personalized instruction is amplified through small-group learning opportunities.
The program, which had been up and running a few weeks prior to the center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, addresses all the core features of autism as well as commonly co-occurring issues including challenging behavior, problems with daily living skills and reduced cognitive functioning.
The Autism Learning Center provides Comprehensive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services along with speech and occupational therapies for children.
ABA is a science of behavior with a goal of making socially significant improvements in people’s lives, Severtson explained.
“We help to teach the children new skills that help them become more independent in their lives, develop friendships, and become more ready to learn in a natural education setting. And, we also address areas that are a little more challenging, such as problem behavior in areas like following instructions and tolerating changes in their routines,” she said. “All of this is really just about learning.”
ABA can be applied either in one-on-one or small group settings, and allows training to be tailored to each individual.
“Each child one-on-one might be working on specific challenges to meet their goals, and when they come together in a group setting we are still addressing those specific goals for those kids, only in an interactive setting,” Severtson said.
The opening of the Bloomington center fills a void at Easterseals by providing behavioral health services that were previously lacking in the area.
“One of the common concerns of families that were coming through our diagnostic center is that it was really hard to juggle behavioral services along with the other therapies they were receiving at Easterseals. All four kids who started with our new center had not received behavioral therapy services in the past,” said Severtson. “Now we can provide all services in one place with all of our therapists working together to meet all of the kids’ needs in one location.”
Special needs children are screened to determine their individual need for autism services through Easterseals diagnostic centers in Bloomington and Peoria. More than 200 kids are screened per year, many of them referred by family pediatricians or school districts. They can also be referred to Easterseals through independent screening services.
The family’s physician is usually consulted during the screening process to better determine the proper course of action for everyone accepted into the Easterseals autism program.
ABA services are not currently covered by Medicaid in Illinois. However, there exists an autism insurance mandate that directs insurance companies to cover ABA services. The problem is that insurance providers can decide to opt out of ABA coverage altogether if they decide to, according to Severtson.
“We do have some grant funding to support some families who are seeking ABA services,” she said. “For speech and occupational therapies, that is usually covered by insurance. For those under three, it is covered by early intervention. Medicaid also covers some of those services, as well.”
Easter Seals hopes to soon expand their autism learning program to include elementary school-age kids who need support during after-school hours, Severtson said.
Parents or guardians of children ages 3 to 5 who think their toddler might benefit from Easter Seals’ autism services should approach their pediatrician or general practitioner for a referral to the program. They can also contact Central Illinois Easterseals directly for help navigating the application and screening process and conferring with physicians.
“In the next month or so we are going to begin offering autism navigation services, which is designed for families of any child who is diagnosed with autism and needs guidance,” Severtson said. “We will be able to help coordinate appointments, help parents understand their insurance billings, help connect with housing services or help interpret a diagnostic report.”
For more information on Central Illinois Easter Seals and the autism services it provides, visit www.EastersealsCi.com.
—- Easterseals autism center in Bloomington emphasizing ‘ready to learn’ —-