Children with autism and patients who need rehabilitation will find help in a new multimillion-dollar Mercy Health Center school and hospital.
The state's first school for autistic children, The Good Shepherd Catholic School at Mercy, initially will provide special services for 20 children when it opens Aug. 22 on the hospital campus.
The number of people with autism is estimated at 1 percent of the population. The numbers have been increasing nationally and statewide, with a state study showing Oklahoma's incidence more than tripled from 2003 to 2007, whether from increased prevalence, improved reporting or diagnoses.
“It's overwhelming, overwhelming,” said Mary Sweet-Darter, the director of the University of Central Oklahoma behavioral and learning clinic.
“Parents are receiving earlier diagnoses of autism for their children and have no place to go for their services.”
Some Oklahoma parents of autistic children were given money to find services under a research project. But Sweet-Darter said parents returned the money because they couldn't find the behavioral therapy services determined most beneficial for autistic children by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That prompted the state Legislature to ask the university to help autistic children and train behavioral therapists specializing in autism. The university borrowed a couple of rooms to provide limited training and teaching for children whose parents could sometimes afford no more than one hour of therapy. It costs about $21,000 for a year of therapy for autistic children in Oklahoma.
More impetus for a real autism school came about a year ago, when residents attending a Mercy round-table requested both an autism school and improved rehabilitation services.
“How do we do a better job as health care providers in meeting the needs of our community?” said Jim Gebhart, president of Mercy Health Center. “It's an all new age for us in regards to health care reform, health care financing. And it should be in health care delivery, as well. So we're looking for innovative ways to try to do that.”
The autism school idea became a hot topic among the university, Mercy and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Now, the university is providing staffing; Mercy is providing the building; and the archdiocese is providing the school accreditation so parents of autistic children can take advantage of a state law that allows special needs children to attend an accredited private school through a state-funded scholarship.
“None of us could do it by ourselves,” Sweet-Darter said.
Tom Edelstein, vice president of mission and ethics for Mercy said research looked at autistic children playing and learning with children without autism.
“Research shows everybody benefits from that,” he said.
Consequently, the autism school for ages 2 to 10, also will have child care services for nonautistic children in separate classrooms in the school across from Mercy on Meridian. Plans are to expand when possible.
“We're really quite excited,” Edelstein said.
Sweet-Darter said applications for enrollment are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The $25 million project includes the school, along with a 50,000-square-foot, 50-bed rehab hospital at Memorial Road and MacArthur Boulevard. The hospital will provide inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation services for patients with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, strokes and other conditions. It will feature pet therapy, an outdoor garden, walking trail and private rooms. Work on the hospital is scheduled to begin Aug. 16 and end in the fall of 2012.
It's all part of about $772 million Mercy plans to invest in Oklahoma over a decade.