Kim Renner knows the pain of a parent searching for an explanation. Observing her child’s social and communication delays, she waited years for a diagnosis. She eventually learned she is the mother of an autistic child — a missing piece in the puzzle that her parental life had become. A stockbroker at the time, she found a medical environment where no formal method for discovering these disorders existed — the observations from unsure parents developed the diagnosis.
Inspired to switch careers, she is now program director for the Toledo Children’s Hospital’s Autism Early Learning Program, a full-time, year-round program devoted to helping parents of children as young as 12 months with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism is diagnosed in one out of every 88 children (and one out of every 54 boys) in the United States, providing parents with an explanation for their children’s delay in communication, lack of social response to others, and manifestation of restricted/repetitive behaviors or verbalizations. The Autism Early Learning Program seeks to not only diagnose early, but to also treat.
The program is staffed by a team of professionals, including special education teachers and speech/language pathologists, who work with children up to age six. A former child care center building houses the program, with rooms for learning toileting skills, gross motor skills (like riding a bike), speech, an outdoor playground and a typical kindergarten classroom. Parents can observe staffers working with their children through a remote camera system. The center will soon include a “living room” where parents can practice exercises in a home-like environment with staffers to offer assistance. Children work with team members on a one-to-one basis six hours each day, progressing toward joining the mainstream. The program was developed in consultation with Cleveland Clinic Autism Development Solutions (CCADS), a full-service, consulting division of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism, where the program’s staff members were trained in ABA, applied behavior analysis.
Renner would like all new parents to understand the benefits of early diagnosis and treatment. “Before, children often weren’t diagnosed until age five,” she said. “Now, with the use of the Autism Diagnostic Observation System, we have a standardized tool for assessing the behaviors that might indicate autism. We see if we can elicit the behaviors in a clinical setting, and then we can use the information to make a diagnosis as early as 12 months. An early diagnosis means that we have so much more time to put a treatment plan in place, and to work on the skills the child will need. I would like to see all kids have the best opportunity for top quality support.”
The program is tuition-based; children three and older with an individualized education program (IEP) may be eligible for autism scholarships through the Ohio Department of Education. Parents and others are important members of the team, and there is plenty of training regarding challenging behaviors. “We teach our parents to learn advocacy skills for their children,” Renner said, “and try to put them in touch with other community agencies that can offer assistance with parental support and sibling concerns.” Those agencies include the Autism Society, and the Great Lakes Collaborative for Autism and Harbor, which have offices in the same building.
The Autism Early Learning Program is located at 2040 W. Central Ave. For more information, contact program director Kim Renner at
419-291-7080 or visit www.promedica.org.