Eastern Michigan University’s Autism Collaborative Center, located in the Fletcher Building on campus, provides a range of services and support for individuals and families living with autism spectrum disorders.
Amy Sanderson, associate director of family and community services, stressed the unique volunteer opportunity for EMU students to gain knowledge and experience that will be invaluable in the workplace later down the road.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for learning here because it’s a very unique place,” Sanderson said. “Plus, there aren’t many universities that offer much access to the multidisciplinary experience with hands-on training.”
Although the ACC is a resource center for the community, they also perform research that focuses on successful outcomes from various interventions and not the actual cause of autism.
“We research and develop into what works best for different populations and individuals with autism,” Sanderson said. “We don’t try to figure out why this happened because we know that there are over 15 million people living with autism and interested in what is working for them to help and improve their lives.”
The ACC provides varied activities and events for the community on a regular basis such as guest speakers, education nights, respite days and support groups.
Sanderson also emphasized the ACC is a community center and not a clinic.
“It was our purpose to be a center because we want this to be a place where people and families feel welcome and comfortable to hang out in the gym, and do informal networking with other families,” she said.
The center also does work in the community, by providing education and training to schools, dentist offices, hair salons and restaurants to build partnerships and create more awareness and acceptance of autism.
“Our hope is that we are improving the climate within the community for individuals with autism to be able to be a part of the community,” Sanderson said.
The center also provides support to EMU and Washtenaw Community College autistic students through their College Supports Program. With more social and communication challenges, sometimes those individuals need extra support despite their high levels of intelligence.
“Intelligence has nothing to do with the diagnosis of autism,” Sanderson said. “Many individuals have some level of cognitive impairment or lower IQ, but the majority of individuals with autism have typical or even higher than average intelligence. The difference is that you have individuals who are very capable from an intelligence standpoint, but are challenged by other communication, social and emotional barriers.”
Not only does autism affect the individual diagnosed, but it can also affect family members, which is why the center has separate support programs for parents, siblings and extended family as well.
“A diagnosis of autism in the family can be very stressful and everyone can go through various stages of grief and worry and fear of the unknown,” Sanderson said. “It’s a journey, and we really try to meet those families where they are at on that journey to be less stressed, less fearful and know that they are not alone.”
One major cause of stress in many households with autism revolves around the financial costs that come with therapy and treatment, because some health insurance companies can decline coverage for autism disorders. The cost can be in the thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sanderson said.
Earlier in the year, a major piece of legislation passed that will help families with autism by mandating all insurance companies cover individuals under the age of 18 with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis in the State of Michigan. It will take effect Oct. 15.
“There is still a lot to be known about how that is going to work, so it’s still very complicated and there are a lot of questions as to what will be covered,” Sanderson said. “But we are trying to understand it the best we can to help our clients.”
With a $500,000 grant awarded to the ACC this year, the center will now be able to expand their full-time staff and launch their Tele-health program, which uses live video stream to evaluate and treat clients. Sanderson said the project will start being implemented in the next few months.
For more information about the center or to volunteer, visit www.emich.edu/acc/index.php.