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Mercy Health Center to open school for autistic children in Oklahoma City

BY SONYA COLBERG scolberg@opubco.com Published: July 19, 2011
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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.”

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