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'There is so much hope'

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SKILLS BUILDING:Shannon Watson, a registered behavioral technician, works one-on-one with a young client at Hopebridge Autism Therapy Center on Wednesday.
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CIRCLE TIME:Shannon Watson, a Registered Behavioral Technician, leads a circle time activity for three- to five-year-olds at Hopebridge Autism Therapy Center, 2513 W. Second St., on Wednesday.

BY Kaitlin Gebby - kgebby@chronicle-tribune.com

It starts with a diagnosis. Concerned parents bring their children to a pediatrician and report that they aren’t hitting their developmental milestones, or are having trouble communicating, and the doctor suspects they may fall on the spectrum of autism.

Around 2.5 percent of children in the US have some form of autism, and each one that comes into Hopebridge has their own set of goals and needs that are addressed in one-to-one therapy.

Established 13 years ago, Hopebridge has dozens of facilities across Indiana and surrounding states dedicated to helping children with autism acclimate to a school environment and meet their developmental, physical and social goals.

Around 30 students attend the center in Marion, located on West Second Street. Behavior analysts design a plan for each student who comes into the facility and a therapist uses one-on-one time in different settings to help students adjust to a future classroom.

Rooms ranging from quiet spaces, indoor play areas and sensory stations typically have two to three students each, and a therapist designated to each one.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst Shannon White said kids work toward goals across the gamut, from jumping and eye contact, to language, social and play skills too.

Jayson McCord, clinic manager at Hopebridge, said they, like many other child learning institutions, utilize learning through play.

“We know that there are challenges and obstacles that they face and come here to work on everyday, but we also want that work to be fun,” he said. “The positive reinforcement provided with that improves everything.”

McCord said a lot of what the therapists work toward at Hopebridge is preparing children for school.

“Being in classroom settings and working through some of those normal routines, like letting kids do the weather or doing circle time, is how we try to acclimate them to that school environment,” McCord said. “Hopebridge isn’t a replacement for school. We want all our kiddos to be in that classroom setting eventually, wherever that may be.”

At the end of each day, a binder is sent home that lists everything the child did that day. The next morning, that binder comes back to the facility and parents do a “hand-off” and explain any new behaviors, accomplishments or concerns.

Gena Greiner, Hopebridge regional operations manager for Indiana, said the common theme she sees across the state is the amount of hope the program brings to parents.

“Many parents come to us worrying about their child, and filled with concerns like if their child will be able to communicate, play, and just have a normal life,” she said. “What we find here is that parents start to see improvements, kids are meeting their goals, and those goals start to change too.”

Once a month, Hopebridge opens their doors to students as well as their siblings for the evening for Parents Night Out. They plan activities for the group while parents are offered an evening to go out to dinner or a movie alone. Greiner said it’s a unique initiative they’ve been implementing in all of their facilities, and offers some much needed relief.

“Our goal is to offer 360 care, care that wraps around the whole family,” she said.

In the future, she said Hopebridge may continue to expand according to the need in the community. Most of all, she said she wanted parents in Grant County to know that they are not alone.

“There is so much hope,” she said. “I often get parents who come in and say they just received this diagnosis. They’re afraid, which is normal. They have a fear of the unknown, a fear of what their child’s life will look like. But there’s a lot of help, and that’s what Hopebridge is here for.”