Mark Wildmon’s ah-hah moment came 13 years ago while teaching an autistic 6-year-old in a Starkville special education class.
The lead teacher pointed to the child, who was climbing up the classroom shelves, and told Wildmon to work with him.
It was Wildmon’s first encounter with autism. He didn’t know what to do. So he began researching different therapeutic and educational techniques until he discovered Applied Behavior Analysis – ABA.
“I did it, and it worked,” said Wildmon, who at the time was a Mississippi State University masters student consulting with area schools as a behavioral specialist. He later completed his pre-doctoral internship and training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
“I was so excited that I would go to the kid’s house on the weekends,” he said. “That’s what sparked my interest.”
It also changed his life. Before his brush with autism and ABA, Wildmon was advancing through the academic system without a solid plan for the future. Afterward, he set a goal: Open a day program in Mississippi for children with severe developmental problems.
Today, that dream is a reality.
Wildmon moved back to Tupelo last year and opened Spectrum Educational Solutions, which provides consulting services to special-education teachers and operates an ABA clinic where developmentally disabled children learn throughout the day.
The clinic portion of the business officially opened in August and has six students on the roster – five with autism, one with Down syndrome. It also has a waiting list of 12 more children who will begin therapy next year.
Wildmon charges a fee for his teacher consulting services. But after an initial stint of paid therapy for the children, those services now are absolutely free. To do that, he created the non-profit Parent Resources for Autism and Development Disabilities – PRADD – which sponsors the services provided by Spectrum Educational Solutions.
“We wanted to make it available to everyone at the same level and quality of instruction,” Wildmon said, explaining that such services typically cost $3,000 a month at for-profit centers.
But donations have been slow to come in. So to keep the center afloat, Wildmon continues his consulting work with a variety of school districts throughout the state. While he’s out, his staff works with the children. They include ABA supervisor Sharon Boudreaux and ABA intern Haley McCraw, who is also a communicative disorders major at the University of Mississippi, as well as three doctoral-level practicum students from MSU.
Wildmon said he hopes to bring on another full-time therapist by December, but that will happen only if the center’s fund-raising efforts are successful. It has four events planned in the next year and a number of grant possibilities on the horizon.
In the meantime, Wildmon said his faith sustains him. The youngest child of American Family Association and American Family Radio founder Don Wildmon and his wife Lynda Lou, the 38-year-old has a strong connection to God.
“In my opinion, God’s hand played a major role in this happening,” Wildmon said. “I don’t think this happened by chance. I think God has a plan in utilizing this (center) across the state.”
Wildmon also credited his parents for making his dream possible. Before he became ill last month, his father would visit the clinic every day to see his son in action and watch the children develop.
“My parents have been a big support,” Wildmon said.
They aren’t the only parents enthusiastic about the non-profit clinic. Parents of developmentally disabled children also have rallied around it, Wildmon said.
“The response has been positive and a bit overwhelming,” Wildmon said. “But the community has to embrace and support it. We’re Tupelo, and we have one of only two clinics in the state like this – and the only one with no service fee.”
Wildmon said he’s hopeful about gaining community support, but even more hopeful about the future he wants to make brighter for children in need. Like that 6-year-old boy he met so long ago.
“I haven’t kept up with him,” Wildmon said. “But were those same services continued, I have no doubt he’d be leading a normal life now.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal