Autism Center of Tupelo gains ground in first year

TUPELO – The Autism Center of Tupelo is hitting its developmental milestones.
The center began last fall with donated office space in Parkgate Plaza, very little money and a burning desire to fill a void in therapy options for families of children with autism in Tupelo and the surrounding areas.
“People are excited about us,” said Executive Director Sharon Boudreaux. “The word is really getting out there. The challenge is building up the funding so we can help more kids.”
In its first year, the center has aided 77 families and provided intensive 1-on-1 services to 29 children, which involves five to eight hours of therapy a week for at least three months.
“We add on children as others progress off,” to receive services at home or at school, Boudreaux said.
The autism spectrum covers a wide range of pervasive developmental disorders. At the high-functioning end, children may have trouble with social interaction. At the severe end, children are non-verbal and engage in ritualistic, repetitive behavior. The Centers for Disease Control estimate 1 in 110 children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.
“The sooner they start, the better in terms of long-term programs,” said Mississippi State University special education professor Sandy Devlin, who partners with the Autism Center of Tupelo to provide consulting services to schools. “There’s not a whole lot of centers where kids can get one-on-one interaction … especially in Mississippi.”
The center provides a wrap-around approach to meet the needs of children and their families. At the core of the center’s work is applied behavioral analysis.
When most of the autistic children come to the center, they are unable to sit at a table and attend to a task, Boudreaux said. In many cases, the therapy unlocks the child’s ability to show what they know.
“They don’t understand the teacher-student relationship,” Boudreaux said. “We teach them how to learn.”
Lisa and John Martin said their son Jack, who turns 4 in October, has made tremendous strides in the month and a half he’s been at the center.
Jack had learned sign language over the winter, but had been completely nonverbal before starting at the center.
“He had no words,” Lisa Martin said. “Within two weeks, he said mama for the first time.”
Now he’s trying to say words as he signs. He’s counted to five forward and backward using close approximations of the words.
“We worked on these things at home, but I never knew if he was taking it in,” Lisa Martin said.
Raising money
Making the services available takes money. Through July, the center, which has completed the process to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, had raised $80,000. That covered the bare bones expenses, including the salaries of the center’s three staff members, liability insurance and utilities.
“We’ve all been affected in our personal lives by autism, that’s why we’re so passionate about these children and their families,” Boudreaux said.
The center got two big boosts in August. The Carpenter Foundation announced a $10,000 grant for the center’s technology and supply needs.
“Up until that point, the printers had pieces taped together,” Boudreaux said. “We were tickled to have working office equipment.”
North Mississippi Health Services made a $15,000 donation in August, bringing its contributions to the center to a total of $25,000 over the past year.
Out of necessity, the center has switched from offering free services to a sliding scale from free to $42 an hour for services. On the open market, the services would cost $125 or more an hour, Boudreaux said. Most of the families qualify for services at rates below $6 an hour.
“The families have been receptive” to the sliding scale, Boudreaux said.
As proud as the center’s staff and board are of what they have accomplished in the first year, they know they haven’t come close to meeting the needs of the region. The center, which is applying for United Way funding and other grants, has a significant waiting list of families in need.
“We are contacted daily,” Boudreaux said. “They’re so desperate for help.”
A consultant working with the center, John Cash, is in the process of creating a Boy Scout troop for boys with autism. The group would like to put together summer camps to help high-functioning kids polish their social interaction skills.

Autism Center of Tupelo
■ For more information about ser-
vices for children with autism or devel-
opmental delays and their families,
call the center at (662) 690-1928.
Upcoming events
■ Mimosa Marketplace: The annual
event, 4 to 9 p.m. Sept. 16, is host-
ed by Hilton Garden Inn and features
local boutiques and complimentary
mimosas. Tickets are $12 and $15.
Call (662) 718-5555.
■ Comcast Annual Tupelo Autism
Gala: Dec. 4 at Goodlett Manor in
Tupelo. Elegant evening of food and
music with silent auction. Tickets are
$25. Call (662) 690-1928.

Michaela Morris / NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio