Camp Kinney counselor Jenn Madara works on an art project with camper Charlie Trusk.

Camp Kinney counselor Jenn Madara works on an art project with camper Charlie Trusk.

Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support Fills Vital Role in Today’s Society

Given the spike of autism diagnoses in recent years, there’s never been a more critical time for the academic and community programs provided by the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University.

The rise in autism diagnoses since the center opened its doors in 2009 is difficult to fathom. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability, increasing by as much as 17 percent annually. Whether diagnostic methods have improved or more individuals are actually on the autism spectrum, the numbers are staggering.

In 2009, one in 150 children (one in 94 boys) was diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder. In just four short years, that number has nearly doubled to one in 88 children (one in 54 boys). As many as 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability with an annual growth rate between 10 – 17 percent. One percent of U.S. children between the ages of 3 and 17 have an autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorders occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

Thanks to a leadership gift from Margaret and Paul ’70 Hondros, what the Kinney Center offers individuals and families living with an autism diagnosis is increasingly in demand. The hundreds of families the Kinney Center has assisted in living with an autism diagnosis speak for itself.

“We went from a child who people told us would never speak and would be institutionalized. And he’s now high functioning. Every little step we take relieves stress for us as parents,” said Michele Reichow, whose son Griffin attended Kinney Center programs. “Everyone here listens and talks and makes him feel important and that’s priceless.”

The Kinney Center has been proactive in its approach by increasing its education and support services in response to the persistent need.

“The growth of the Kinney Center has been tremendous,” said executive director Ryan Hammond M.B.A. ’13. “We have enjoyed such an overwhelming response from our students who have found their calling through their work and families allowing us to support their children.”

The Kinney Center’s mission is grounded in everyday life – educating and training tomorrow’s autism professionals and supporting the individuals and families affected by autism.

“The availability of educators and service providers who work with the millions of individuals and families impacted by autism is disproportionate,” Paul Hondros said in 2009 when he chose to name the center after his mother, Dorothy Kinney Hondros. “The Kinney Center’s mission is to address this gap by inspiring and equipping a new generation of professionals dedicated to assisting those trying to navigate their way through the varied challenges this disorder presents.”

A Mecca of Learning

Because of increased societal demands, the center has scaled up its programs for students. From high school students to undergraduate and graduate students to professionals, the Kinney Center has become a mecca of ASD learning.

Headed by Academic Executive Director Michelle Rowe, Ph.D., a newly introduced autism behavioral studies major has formalized the training process. The new autism studies minor offers a rich curriculum for students from relevant majors interested in an in-depth study of autism.

The Kinney SCHOLARS (Students Committed to Helping Others Learn about Autism Research and Support) program started in 2010 with 15 SJU students. This year, the program boasts 85 SCHOLARS and five graduate assistants. Each of these Kinney SCHOLARS will spend a minimum of 2,000 hours working with families with autism. SCHOLARS apprentices undergo extensive training the summer prior to attending Saint Joseph’s University, providing them with a head start in pursuing their careers in the autism field.

Kinney offers a certificate in autism studies, as well as continuing education courses, and provides many local high school students with a service learning opportunity.

Support and Service

Since its inception, the Kinney Center has helped more than 850 families. With the addition of three adult programs (Adult Night Out, Social Skills and Life Skills) this year, the center anticipates hosting at least 500 families. The addition of adult services means the Kinney Center can now support individuals on the spectrum and their families well into adulthood.

The adult programs complement established ones for children from ages 3 to 21, which include Kids Night Out and Sibshops for siblings who assist their brothers or sisters on the spectrum. One of Kinney’s marquee programs, Camp Kinney is a five-week summer camp at which children on the spectrum intermingle with their “neurotypical peers.”

What’s Next?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism costs about $60 billion a year. That cost is expected to increase to as much as $400 billion within 10 years. Autism costs roughly $3.2 million over a person’s lifespan. Couple those sobering figures with a population that is living longer than ever, and the autism situation becomes even more complex.

As science and research uncover more information about ASD, the Kinney Center will continue training tomorrow’s teachers and caregivers and helping individuals and families impacted by this disorder.