There are only a handful of Kansans from Great Bend to the Colorado border who have completed Autism Specialist training. And three of them work at Sunflower’s Early Education Center.
"We have had an autism team for a couple of years but this specialist training takes our knowledge to the next level," said Cathy Estes, EEC coordinator. "Our teachers and speech therapist are learning from the experts; this training is the gold standard in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder."
Speech/language Pathologist Susan Keeler, Early Interventionist Jonelle Freeman and Teacher Alyson Burkhart have completed the on-site training and lectures. Each also will provide 10 videotapes of their interventions with a child; they will be certified upon approval of these tapes.
"When Susan started her training, there were only two others certified in the western half of the state," Estes noted. "Each of our participants should be commended for taking this next, crucial step in their education."
The classes are through the KU Life Span Institute, Kansas Center for Autism Research & Training.
Keeler said the training was "outstanding" and she will use it to increase children’s communication skills so they can let others know their wants and needs.
"I was trained in the interventions that have proven to be effective for children with speech-development deficits," Keeler said. "We will identify concerns and then use the appropriate interventions for each child in order to meet their milestones."
Freeman noted the training includes information about people with ASD who didn’t receive intervention until school age.
"We are getting an up-close look at ASD and the interventions that can affect change," Freeman said. "I will be better able to explain to parents why early intervention is so important for children ages birth to 3."
At any given time, the EEC provides services for six to eight children with ASD. It is a developmental disability that results from a neurological disorder and affects normal brain function.
Autistic behaviors can include lack of communication, repetitive behavior, little interest in seeking out relationships, lack of eye contact, lack of response to people and things, and no fear of heights or walking into traffic.
"Sometimes parents assume their child has a hearing loss," Estes said. "And in some instances that is the case. We can test for that and there are subtleties we can watch for.
"A child might be going through a phase, which will pass," Estes added. "This is why it can take a couple of years to determine if ASD is involved. But whether it is a learning phase or ASD, we can provide services that help children meet their milestones."
The myths associated with autism include: it is a mental illness; it is caused by problems during childbirth; children with autism cannot learn; and it is caused by poor parenting.
"Parents oftentimes think they are to blame," Estes said. "That is simply not the case. This is a neurological disorder and we can help parents understand and offer comfort to them."
The earlier a family seeks information the better because the brain is just forming in young children. Problems can at least be alleviated and some can be overcome, Estes said.
The EEC staff does not diagnose but they often refer families to a developmental pediatrician in Wichita. They also have a good working relationship with the three local pediatricians at the Great Bend Children’s Clinic, Estes noted.
"We all work together," Estes said. "Everyone’s goal is what is best for children and their families. If ASD is suspected or diagnosed by a physician, we can play an instrumental role in providing services as soon as possible."
Sunflower’s EEC is one of 37 networks in Kansas. It serves infants and toddlers birth to age 3 in Barton, Pawnee, Rice, Rush and Stafford counties. It is funded by tax dollars and private donations, and services are free. For more information, call 620-792-4087.