A Tailored Approach to Services for People with Disabilities

Growth in the number of people identified with autism has created a waiting list at Mosaic’s school in Axtell, Neb., and is one of the factors driving Mosaic’s move to fully personalized services for all people.

About one in 68 children in the U.S. have been identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and, for whatever reason, identifications have increased sharply in recent years.

“Our proportion of folks with autism is increasing,” said the Rev. Dr. Jim Fruehling, a licensed psychologist and ELCA pastor who serves as Mosaic’s Vice President of Behavioral and Spiritual Supports. “We will have to be more and more sensitive to the different services this population wants and needs.”

The official diagnostic criteria for autism is two pages long, but characteristics include difficulty communicating and interacting with others, repetitive behavior patterns, limited interests or activities, and sensory issues that interfere with typical life activities.

Sharing knowledge about how Mosaic can support people with autism is key in making sure they can lead meaningful lives, said Karen Fry, Mosaic’s Mental and Behavioral Health Director.

“There are a lot of people in Mosaic who know a lot about autism,” Fry said. “We can share our knowledge across the nation and fill in the gaps.”

Knowledge sharing starts with making sure that staff are aware of how autism differs from other diagnoses.

“Sometimes people just need to know more,” Fry added. “If you don’t realize what’s going on, you can’t address it.”

The knowledge that someone with autism is going to perceive things differently can make a huge difference.

“A long time ago we would have said, ‘Stop rocking.’ Now we give them a rocking chair,” Fry said.

“A long time ago we would have said, ‘Stop rocking.’ Now we give them a rocking chair,” Fry said.

As Mosaic’s knowledge grows, it can focus more on tailoring its approach to the needs of the people it serves with autism.

Fry and Fruehling are a part of a task force at Mosaic that is looking into ways that staff members can work together to address the needs of children and adults with autism. That team is led by Molly Kennis, who serves as Mosaic’s Vice President of Operations in Colorado.

“We have more parents who are asking about autism services,” Kennis said. “They know what Mosaic offers, but it’s not exactly what they want for their child. I think the task force really wants to be creative and personalized with our approach.”

That personalized approach to services is producing strong results at Mosaic’s specialized school in Axtell, Neb. The school serves 29 students, many of whom have autism.

“It’s not like a regular school that someone with special needs is plugged in,” said Debbie Herbel, Mosaic’s Executive Director in Axtell. “We individualize each curriculum.”

The school uses what’s called the TEACCH approach, which adapts curricula to the learning styles of children with autism.

“We see progress almost instantly,” Herbel said of students who come to the school.

Everything in the classroom is designed to create an environment to support the students’ learning. Classroom changes happen about every 5-15 minutes and students aren’t forced to stay on a subject, which helps students stay connected.

One of the newest students hadn’t been able to attend school previously. But within three months of using personalized supports, he is exceeding expectations in the classroom.

“No one thought he would do as well as he could,” Herbel said. “He’s just thriving.”

Right now the school has six students on a six- to nine- month waitlist. The school receives requests from across the state of Nebraska and hopes to continue its success.

Fry said that the school is just one example of the good things going on across Mosaic to support people with autism.

“There’s good stuff going in all places we serve,” she added.

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