TUPELO – A diagnosis of autism can be heartbreaking for a family, but the price of treatment often is even more devastating.
Recommended therapies cost upward of $3,000 a month, and most insurance plans don’t cover but a fraction of that. That has left hundreds of Northeast Mississippi children without much help.
Tupelo native Dr. Mark Wildmon recently opened Spectrum Educational Solutions, a clinic offering specialized one-on-one instruction to children with autism – as well as those with a wide range of developmental disorders – at no cost.
The clinic is one of only two in the state that uses Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, an approach that seeks to understand what motivates a person to learn and is widely considered one of the most effective methods of educating people with developmental disabilities.
“Working in the schools and seeing the low number of families that could possibly afford services (…) we wanted to make it available to everyone at the same quality of service,” Wildmon said.
Mississippi’s other ABA center, located in Jackson, charges fees. The average fee for ABA services is $75 an hour, Wildmon said.
Wildmon received his Ph.D. in behavioral school psychology from Mississippi State University and later did his pre-doctoral internship and training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
His expertise is ABA, and he has gone to Bermuda to direct the island’s first autism clinic before returning to Mississippi last spring to consult with local schools. In August, he decided to open his clinic.
According to the state Department of Education, more than 300 children with autism attend public schools in Northeast Mississippi. That’s about one quarter of 1 percent of total enrollment.
The figure doesn’t include children diagnosed with a milder form of autism, called Asperger’s, or children attending private schools or who are home schooled.
With an estimated one in 150 children having the disorder, it’s likely far more children have autism than what’s indicated by agency statistics.
To parents of those children, the clinic is a godsend.
“I feel Dr. Wildmon is an answer to prayers,” said Susan Sheehan, whose 7-year-old son, Thomas, has been going to Spectrum Educational Solutions since the clinic opened early last month.
“We have so many children around here that need extra education. The school system is wonderful, but there are educational holes in the system. Dr. Wildmon is the one who really understands how to fill these needs.”
Sheehan learned about Wildmon from a Google search and quickly arranged a meeting. At Sheehan’s request, the Tupelo Public School District hired Wildmon in the spring as a consultant to work with Thomas. After seeing how much her son improved, Sheehan then encouraged Wildmon to open a clinic in town so that other children would benefit from his services.
“When you have a child who is nonverbal, such as Thomas, it is very difficult for the parents to know how to teach the child,” Sheehan said.
Six children are in individual three-month programs at Spectrum, and 12 more children are on a waiting list to begin services in January. Wildmon hopes to be able to admit all 12 students but will need more funding in order to hire another full-time therapist to his current staff of four.
He is applying for grant money for Parent Resources for Autism and Development Disabilities, the non-profit corporation that encompasses Spectrum, and currently has four fundraisers planned, including a bass fishing tournament Oct. 10.
One of the children Wildmon currently serves is 3-year-old Marly Gayle Kelly, who lost her ability to speak a year ago because of autism.
“The one-on-one therapy here was fantastic,” said Marlina Kelly, Marley Gayle’s mother. “It is doing wonders with our child.”
Kelly’s sister, Sharon Boudreaux, joined Wildmon’s staff as an ABA specialist. Kelly was so inspired by Wildmon’s work that she also joined the staff, as a volunteer receptionist.
“I will do whatever it takes for this place not to close,” Kelly said. “It has to work. Mark hears it from me all the time. I will do anything but leave. Don’t ask me to go.”
With such a high number of children affected with autism, the demands on Spectrum Educational Center will only grow, said Kay Mathews, executive director of the Regional Rehab Center.
She added that Wildmon’s clinic gives her a tremendous referral source.
“What Dr. Wildmon does can bring us another part of what these children need,” Mathews said. “It completes the picture.”
Wildmon also continues to work with school districts in the state, training teachers in ABA techniques and working with some special needs students. He uses all of the money he gets from that work in order to fund his non-profit.
Wildmon currently works with five school districts: Lee County, Tishomingo County, Copiah County, Tunica County and Harrison County, and also works with Thomas in the Tupelo Public Schools District.
He’s also advised the Tishomingo County District about renovating one of its buildings to better help some of its special education students.
“I just can’t measure what its worth for our district, not just for our students; he is able to comfort our parents,” said Debbie Walker, special education director for Tishomingo County Schools. “Our parents have lots of questions and he’s been able to ease a lot of their anxiety in ways we can’t because he is so knowledgeable in that area…
“They know they can rely on him to share his ideas, his knowledge and his advice. It is very comforting to know we have him.”
Support Spectrum Educational Solutions
The non-profit learning center accepts monetary donations and also plans a series of fundraisers.
• Send donations to Parent Resources for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (PRADD) at 100 Parkgate Extended, Suite 2B, Tupelo, MS, 38801 or contact the center at (662) 821-2012.
• Anglers for Autism Charity Bass Fishing Tournament: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m, Oct. 10 at J.P. Coleman Boat Ramp. $35 entry fee per angler; two anglers per boat limit. Door prizes, games and payouts for winners. To enter call (662) 821-2012.
Applied Behavior Analysis
ABA is an approach that seeks to understand what motivates a person to learn and uses those motivations to modify behavior and teach new skills. It’s widely considered the most effective method of educating people with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Autism is developmental disorder that impairs behavior, social and communication skills and affects an estimated one in 150 children being born today.
Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal