Community rocks out for autism center

By Gus Bode

As her five-and-a-half-year-old son ran around a table, asking for a toy car being raffled, Becky Lewis said she is overjoyed because her son Wyatt now asks for things in short sentences.

Lewis, of Herrin, has taken her son to the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Carbondale at the Wham Building since June. At the center, staff work with him on his speaking issues. She said in the short time he has been going she has seen a change.

“He talks to us a lot, trying to tell us things he understands and wanting us to know he knows what this is and what that is,” she said.


Brandy Girtman, of Jonesboro, also takes her daughter to the center for therapy. She organized a fundraiser for the center Sunday called Rockin’ Out to Knock Out Autism at the Great Boars of Fire in Cobden. All proceeds of the event — which featured two bands, food, bounce houses and raffled baskets — will go to the center.

Girtman, of Jonesboro, works at the restaurant and organized the event, for which everything was a donation.

Kirsten Schaper, clinical director at the center and senior lecturer at the Rehabilitation Institute, said during the past five years state funding for the center has been cut by almost $150,000, so fundraisers are necessary. She said the center runs on an annual $400,000 grant and receives minimal support from the university.

“Under the previous administration, we were held up as a signature program and we were promoted as a way to attract students,” she said. “Under the current administration … they let us use the room and they turn on the lights.”

The center works with three different areas: training graduate students, providing direct services and research, Schaper said.

She said 26 graduate students work at the center and are trained to work with the children. They provide therapy in the center but also work directly with four school districts. She said the center is the only autism center in the southern region of the state and covers the bottom 32 counties.

She said the center focuses on research of teaching methods and how to effectively teach graduate assistants to work with the children.


“If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. They are all completely different,” she said.

There are different levels of functioning in autism, she said, because it is a spectrum disorder that reflects the changes they go through in their life.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, autism is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

The institute estimates that six out of every 1,000 children will have autism.

“We may see a child at two and think the child is severely autistic but then in a couple of years they are getting an education and have friends,” she said.

Jessie Loverude, a senior from Carbondale studying communication disorders and science, said after working at the center for a year she wants to work somewhere just like it after she graduates.

She said she communicates with the parents, schedules evaluations and assists graduate students by taking data and managing the child’s behavior during therapy.

“Progress takes a long time, and in the year I have been there I am not going to see a total change in a child. But this semester the child I have worked with up until now I can see progress,” she said.

Lewis said the center has not only helped her child but has given her a support system. She said she is relieved to know she’s not the only person going through this.

“Brandy and her husband have been wonderful just to be able to sit and talk to and not feel like we are the only ones,” she said.

Lewis said the hardest part of having a child with autism is taking him somewhere there are not children like him because people tend to stare.

“You think the worst, they might just be looking because he squeals high-pitched,” she said. “We can’t go to movies because he squeals and it is not because he is upset, it is because he is excited.”

Lewis said she and her husband took Wyatt to see his first movie at a sensory screening in Cape Girardau where the lights are on, the sound is turned down and the children are able to run around the theatre.

“We had tears in our eyes just because it was a normal thing we were able to do,” she said.