An Owensboro nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities is suspending its autism program. The CEO says the autism program will undergo a major restructuring to better serve its clients, who are students in elementary, middle and high school.
Wendell Foster is a nonprofit that’s been serving people with disabilities for 72 years. The autism program began as a satellite location for the Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky University, but eventually the Owensboro program became independent.
The current autism program in Owensboro has been offered as an afterschool program a few hours a week, which has an average of 15-20 students, and a summer camp three days a week, which usually has about 30 students.
“The program really didn’t develop over time with the new techniques and strategies that have been out there for autism," said Wendell Foster CEO Eric Scharf.
He said the current program for young people with autism is mainly recreational and has valuable “incidental teaching,” but the revised program will include “structured teaching.”
“When you do structured teaching you can do role playing and you can actually sit down and go over as a group and individually, some of the social skills, some of intermittent skills you want to develop that are more clinical in nature, behavioral in nature. And again, all of it being evidence-based," said Scharf.
He said an important goal of the restructured program will be to coordinate with each student’s school on their Individual Education Program, or I-E-P. That coordination is to keep goals and strategies consistent among school, parents and the Wendell Foster autism program.
He says one possibility is the addition of an early intervention program for three and four-year olds.
Scarf said he expects that it will take six to eight months to have an experienced clinical team in place, which then could do other staff training. He said staff members will have to have basic foundation training, as well as extensive training in evidence-based practices and interventions for autism spectrum disorder.
The autism program will be suspended at the end of this academic year in May.
Scharf said at some point, possibly in several months, if trained staff is available, an occasional social or recrational event may be planned, for instance, a parents night out or a kids movie night.
While some parents have expressed concern over the gap in services for their children with autism, Scharf said families may consider other existing programs in the region, especially for summer camp. While that would require additional travel, some programs in Indiana and other cities in Kentucky may be able to serve the students until the restructured program begins in Owensboro.