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Autism Center serves adults in a child-centered industry

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By Tracy Harris

A new project by Apple Patch is providing unique opportunities for adults with autism.

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The Autism Center at Apple Patch opened in early January in Crestwood Station and is at 50 percent capacity already, said Joe Spoelker, director of development and marketing.

While there are many programs for children with autism, Spoelker said few services exist for those individuals once they reach adulthood.

They receive services throughout school, but after graduating or aging out, parents are expected to find ways to support them.

Apple Patch, a Crestwood non-profit that promotes independence for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has worked with autistic adults since its inception.

The organization’s other day programs include autistic participants, Spoelker said, and individuals functioning well won’t be forced to change programs.

But, some individuals need more individualized attention — ACAP features a 3:1 student-teacher ratio — and less stimulation from other clients.

Nine individuals enrolled in the program when it launched five weeks ago, and Spoelker said the staff is already seeing positive results.

Caregivers are noticing the participants are calmer at home, too.

Half of the nine participants are individuals who live in Apple Patch residential programs and half live in private residences.

There’s a daily schedule for each individual and specially-trained staff teach them life skills like technology, reading, spelling and math.

Three classrooms provide space for technology, education and arts and crafts, plus a large main room for exercise, lunch and other activities.

The center’s sensory room is a big draw, with black lights, a tube full of colored bubbling water and swimming fish projected on the wall. 

It’s a calming space, and participants can go in to calm down when they become overwhelmed, Spoelker said.

The program’s two iPads are also hit, said center director James Walker.

He said the iPads allow adults with autism to have a tactile and visual learning experience. 

The idea for ACAP had floated around for awhile, Spoelker said, but a 60 Minutes television feature on an autistic man’s success communicating with an iPad inspired organization leaders.

Before taking the idea to the board of directors, Spoelker and other members of the Apple Patch leadership team scouted possible locations.

A phone call to BC Woods, property owners for Crestwood Station, sealed the deal.

Just hours before Spoelker’s call, Sylvan Learning Center officials called to terminate their lease.

The Sylvan space is exactly right, Spoelker said. Thanks to the prior tenant, three private rooms with viewing windows already existed and Sylvan sold Apple Patch much of their existing furniture, including U-shaped tables that work perfectly.

Spoelker said there are many things the center hopes to add, including more educational technology devices, and are always looking for donors to help support Apple Patch. There's even a special online donation site to raise funds for iPads.

In the future, Apple Patch officials hope working closely with autistic adults will help the staff identify possible employment opportunities by knowing each person’s skill set and strengths.

But so far, ACAP is working well for its clients — and that’s what matters, Spoelker said.

“It’s really turned out to be fantastic,” he said.