Autism Center at Everett hospital to officially open in August

EVERETT — It’s the biggest expansion of services since Providence Children’s Center moved into new quarters in 2002.

In August, the 3,000-square-foot Providence Autism Center will be opened on the fifth floor of Providence’s Pavilion for Women and Children on Pacific Avenue in Everett — the first center of its kind in Snohomish County.

Construction is expected to cost about $480,000. And donations to the Providence General Foundation, many from the annual Festival of Trees program, will allow total program grants to reach $1.5 million over the next five years, said Lori Kloes, the foundation’s development director.

The autism center will include a large classroom where most of the activities and services to children will take place. Two nearby rooms will allow parents to observe specialists working with their children, said Darren Redick, Providence’s vice president for support services.

The center, which will officially open on Aug. 11, has been a longtime dream of the children’s center manager, Christie Tipton.

Washington has a relatively high incidence rate of autism, with about one in 62 children getting the diagnosis, she said. Nationally, the rate is one out of every 68 children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have the greatest capacity to affect a change in children with autism between 3 and 6 years of age,” Tipton said. “If you get in early and help a child maximize their potential, you don’t have to undo the learned behaviors they pick up as they’re struggling with this disorder.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong developmental disability that can include problems with social communication and interaction as well as repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

The children’s center now assists 1,200 children a year with physical and developmental issues. This includes about 225 kids who either have autism or may be diagnosed with it. They receive special help in appointments about once a week.

The new autism center will allow these children to get much more intensive help, 15 hours a week over 12 weeks. Parents are required to participate in seven hours per week of educational activity. The sessions could help up to 64 kids and their parents a year.

A small group of seven children and their parents will launch the program next month as a test group. The program is expected to ramp up with morning and afternoon classes beginning in the fall.

Children on the autism spectrum can have symptoms ranging from mild to severe. “In that range, every single child has different characteristics, with some children having language skill problems and others having sensory problems,” Tipton said.

“Oftentimes, they don’t like to be touched or hugged, they can’t handle loud noises or bright lights or crowded environments, and they’re not able to calm themselves when they get over-stimulated,” she said.

When people see a young child in the grocery store having an emotional meltdown, “we all jump to the conclusion that it’s a bad kid and bad parents,” Tipton said.

Tricia Benfield, of Arlington, and her son Lawson, who turns 4 next month, have received services through the children’s center since he was 2.

Read the Benfields’ story here.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have any idea of what autism is,” she said. “It affects every aspect of their life, their way of being, their way of experiencing the world.”

The things that are bothersome to them are things an average person would think are ridiculous, she said. “But a child with autism, it disrupts their body in so many ways. I just want people to know that.”

Benfield said she’s delighted that she and her son will be included in the autism center’s first intensive program for children and their families.

It’s an extension of what specialists have been working on with Lawson. “But to have a program that’s focusing on him five days a week for seven weeks, that’s an opportunity I would never miss,” she said.

The half-day sessions will enable kids to focus on what can be challenging tasks, from following simple classroom rules such as taking turns, problem solving and resolving conflicts to surmounting transitions in stride, such as moving from one task to another, which can trigger upsets.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” Benfield said. “I feel blessed that they offered this to my son.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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