Madigan Army Medical Center plans new autism center for military kids

VIDEO: Coming soon: Autism center for JBLM kids

Madigan Army Medical Center is working to open an autism center for military families at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The center is scheduled to open early next year.
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Madigan Army Medical Center is working to open an autism center for military families at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The center is scheduled to open early next year.

Krystal Mitchell remembers the two-hour commutes with her toddler, trying to get him the help he needed.

That was before her husband, Danny, a military policeman, was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2012.

Mitchell’s son Jeremiah, now 6 years old, was diagnosed with autism at age 2, and the diagnosis launched the Mitchells on a quest to find appropriate care.

“My husband and I said, ‘We can’t let this break us,’ ” Mitchell said. “We have to make sure we get the best care for our child.”

Accessing that care often meant driving between doctors and therapists in multiple locations off-base — from the neurological center that was two hours away to the specialized behavioral therapy that was 30 to 40 minutes away.

The Mitchells, who now live in Lacey, say that when the time came for a reassignment by the Army, they asked to be posted to JBLM. The base is recognized as a “compassionate reassignment” posting for military families with special-needs children, because of its access to both on-base and community resources for those children.

By early next year, JBLM hopes to be able to offer military families with autistic children even more services through a new on-base autism center.

This is a new endeavor that the Army is willing to support and pilot.

Lt. Col. Eric Flake, Madigan physician

Lt. Col. Eric Flake, a physician at Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM, is the hospital’s director for developmental and behavioral pediatrics. He’s heading up efforts to open the autism center.

Every month, Flake said, between three and five new families with autistic children arrive at JBLM, while three move out. But there are also about seven new diagnoses of autism among JBLM kids in the same time frame.

It will cost about $500,000 to equip the new center, and its annual operating budget is estimated at $1.5 million.

“This is a new endeavor that the Army is willing to support and pilot,” Flake said. “We are excited to be able to showcase it here at Madigan.”

The new autism center will be adjacent to the hospital, in a former day care center. Flake expects to be able to provide care for between 100 and 150 autistic kids each month.

Evaluations, diagnostic tests and routine medical care will continue to be performed at Madigan, but ongoing autism therapy will happen at the center. The goal is to separate anxiety-producing procedures such as blood draws and immunizations from therapy, so kids won’t associate the two, Flake said.

Facility planners envision a range of services: a system navigator to help families connect with both on-base and off-base care, on-site respite care for parents who need a break from caring for their high-needs child, parent education resources and a place for parent support groups to gather, spacious rooms for occupational and physical therapy and more.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a neurological processing disorder that can affect language development, communication and social interactions. Autistic kids may have an intellectual capacity that’s similar to many of their peers. But their impaired ability to communicate produces frustration that can lead to challenging behaviors.

“It’s not because the horsepower isn’t there,” Flake said. “It’s the output.”

At the same time, some autistic individuals exhibit high-level skills in areas such as art, music or academic subjects.

Reaching children with autism can be a slow, painstaking process.

“We expect to see families for a long time,” Flake added. “It is not a quick fix.”

We have to make sure we get the best care for our child.

Krystal Mitchell, parent

The center will employ three speech-language pathologists, two occupational therapists and two board-certified applied behavior analysis professionals. ABA is a form of therapy that can help autistic children improve skills like listening, speaking and interpreting interactions with others — areas where autistic people can struggle.

“One thing we hope to do here is identify best practices,” said Flake.

Families who live on-base will be able to get most of their care from the center, but those who live elsewhere will be able to choose therapy that’s closer to home.

For Mitchell, the idea of one-stop shopping for services holds a lot of appeal. She hopes to be able to fit more ABA therapy into her son’s schedule through the center.

In the past, she said, “my son was overwhelmed by having to go to so many different places.” Autistic children often have a difficult time adjusting to new environments or people. So Mitchell is looking forward to being able to access services in one location.

Mitchell, who works with Flake as a coordinator with Madigan’s graduate medical education office, has also helped advise him on what parents and children will need in the new center.

She wants to help provide parent-to-parent support in a safe and welcoming atmosphere.

“They are true visionaries with this,” she said of those involved in setting up the center. “They absolutely get it. We are going to be the benchmark for all the military.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo