Two months after its opening and a week after its ribbon-cutting ceremony, The Place for Children with Autism is at full capacity and making plans to expand.
Not bad for an operation that originally had no intention of coming to C-U.
“Honestly,” said founder and CEO Daniel Blank, “we’re here because the university wanted us to be here. We didn’t pick you out. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, there’s great demographics there.’ We don’t even do demographics.”
The Place for Children with Autism offers applied behavior analysis for children ages 2-6 in a preschool-like setting. It has four locations in Chicago and had no plans to expand but the idea of working with the University of Illinois intrigued Blank.
“I was thinking it would be great to work alongside a university so they could look at us,” he said. “We (now) have an office inside our facility for the university. We would like to actually get some outside data on what we’re doing and to share what we’re doing, possibly get it published and get some academic support behind what we’re doing.”
What they’re doing is working one-on-one – each child has a therapist – to develop children across the autism spectrum. For every 10 kids, there is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who uses real-time data, updated constantly with an iPad, to improve the direction of each child’s development.
“Most (therapy) models, if not all, the BCBA maybe looks at this stuff once a week or once every two weeks. We’re updating it on the spot,” Blank said. “If a kid is having difficulty with the programming we can adjust it and figure out what’s going on. Or if they’ve mastered it, they’re not sitting around waiting for the next thing, we’re moving on. We’re keeping pace with them. Which is what ABA is supposed to be. The BCBAs who have come to work with us all say, ‘This is what we were trained for.’”
The Place for Children with Autism has taken up residence at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, using space once occupied by Health Alliance. All therapists, now numbering between 50 and 60, are full time. And they, along with the BCBAs, set the direction of the organization – not the financial side.
“From Day 1, we’ve had a separation between clinical and financial,” Blank said. “Clinical runs our operation. Clinical directs us in terms of what we deliver. Financial doesn’t go to clinical and say, ‘You need to cut this, you need to do this.’ Our whole thing is quality. If we can deliver the highest level of ABA therapy, then I can go to bed at night feeling good about what we’re doing and not looking at these kids as dollar signs. We’ve gotten there.”
Of course, there is a financial component to the operation that can’t be avoided. Much of that revolves around insurance.
“There are an awful lot of kids that don’t have insurance,” said Blank, who jokes that “I’m probably the only human being you’ll ever talk to that’s read the Affordable Care Act.” He noted that autism is labeled a pre-existing condition under the ACA, which means it is covered with unlimited benefits. But, he said, that also means that you can enroll only once a year – from a period of Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. “We have a sense of urgency here because if you don’t work for somebody who (provides) insurance, you literally have six weeks to get covered or you have to wait a whole year. So that is the biggest message.”
Added chief operating officer Marisol Remoquillo: “There are considerable barriers to accessing autism treatment for kids under Medicaid plans. Managed Care Organizations have yet to approve a provider in their networks. The Affordable Care Act plans allow families to access high-quality, comprehensive health coverage at an affordable cost. The Place for Children with Autism provides resources to families who are looking for help enrolling with these plans or accessing grants to cover costs.” (For more information call (224) 436-0788 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The intention to enroll autistic children who face obstacles is a major reason why you won’t find The Place for Children with Autism opening a location in the Chicago suburbs.
“Our mission is to serve underserved communities and provide the absolute best therapy possible. It’s that simple,” Blank said. “That’s why we’re not in the suburbs, to tell you the truth. I could go into the suburbs and sign up every family that already has insurance coverage. We have no intention of going into the suburbs because that’s not our mission.”
And since he’s been in C-U, Blank has joined the ranks of those whose eyes are opened by what they experience.
“It’s amazing to me,” he said. “As I’ve gotten to know the area, I’ve become stunned by it. I lived in Madison (Wisc.) for a number of years, and I always thought, ‘The University of Illinois, you’re in the middle of a cornfield.’ And I get down here and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is mind-boggling.’ It’s phenomenal. And there are no distractions. You don’t have a big city right here as a distraction. It’s (all) right here in this community, and it’s awesome.”