SALISBURY — Partners In Learning is the model center for early education and family support services in North Carolina. Over a year ago, Partners In Learning expanded evidence-based programming to include therapy for individuals with autism by providing Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). According to the Autism Society of North Carolina, one in 36 children is diagnosed with autism. Though the cause isn’t known, studies have linked it to genetics and a chemical imbalance in the brain. Many researchers believe there is a combination of factors, including genetics and environment. Researchers agree that vaccines are not the cause of autism. That was a once-believed factor due to fraudulent data and an unethical research study completed by Wakefield in 1998, who had a personal conflict of interest in publishing the study. Many studies since then have debunked his research, and 10 of his coauthors have retracted their interpretation of his 2004 paper.

“ABA is the most research-based program and the gold standard for treating Autism Spectrum Disorders,” said Cassie Karriker, the clinical director for Partners In Learning. “Unfortunately, due to the rise in children being diagnosed with autism, the waitlist in most counties is two to three years long. Until last year, there were no ABA services in Rowan County, and every family had to be added to a very long waitlist and then driven out of the county to receive the service. Families using the clinical and educational services through Partners In Learning will have access to evaluation, ABA therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, play therapy, occupational therapy, mental health counseling, inclusive educational opportunities, and family support programs. Partners In Learning Executive Director Norma Honeycutt added, “Partners In Learning is essentially a one-stop shop for all services.” April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. “We want the community to know there are resources available for support,” said Amy Vestal, the Partners In Learning development director. “We also want to highlight the need for understanding, impactful statistics and knowing the signs.” Early signs of autism include delayed speech development, repetitive motor movements or vocalizations, lack of eye contact and joint attention, delayed social and play skills, impulsivity, self-harm, limited interests, trouble adapting to routine changes, unexplained crying or laughing, difficulty understanding social cues and situations, and sensory sensitivities. “Families receive the diagnoses, but often aren’t sure what to do after that and have many questions they are processing,” Vestal said. “Where do they get help, how do they pay for services, who can they connect with, how is this going to impact their life, now and in the future?” Partners In Learning aims to help families through the process. Their family support program assists families in getting the diagnosis, setting up therapies and connecting with support groups.

“We offer many different kinds of support,” Karriker said. “We offer support groups that are child and family-focused, such as outings to aquariums, popsicle parties, picnics in the park, and cookies with Santa. Children come together and know that they can be their true selves, and families don’t have to worry about whether someone is judging them or not. This is a judgment-free zone. We also offer individualized support where we will go with families to their doctor’s appointments, diagnosis appointments, individualized education plans and individual family service plan meetings. Being a parent of a child with special needs can feel so lonely. We want to remove those barriers as much as possible.” Honeycutt added, “We have been serving children on the autism spectrum for over 25 years. Throughout the years, I have witnessed barriers being broken and more acceptance. For many of these children, I would say autism is their superpower. Their brain just works differently. They are just like other children, with strengths and areas to work on. Services have expanded as research has identified the need and opportunities that early intervention and applied behavior analysis can provide. We have been very fortunate at Partners In Learning to expand our services by providing ABA therapy. Six children have already been able to reap benefits from our unique approach to ABA therapy. Our approach includes low ratios, passionate technicians, a team approach, hands-on learning and inclusive classrooms.” Once Partners In Learning’s new site on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. in Salisbury is complete, the group will be able to expand the number of children served by the program. The new facility will be equipped with multiple therapy rooms, a STEM room, a sensory-motor room, a parent training room, a community training room, a support group space, and an expansive outdoor learning space that will include sensory gardens.

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