by SARAH JOHNSON CORRESPONDENT
Marcela Nunez knew that she wanted a better plan for helping families with autistic children after her son was diagnosed at age 5. “We were driving all around the state to different specialists for Ian, and I thought it would be helpful to have all of those services under one roof,” Marcela said, sitting in a quiet counseling room at Innovative Autism Network (IAN) on Farmington Avenue in Plainville.
Marcela is the Director and owner of IAN, which she opened in 2010. She was already a board-certified behavioral analyst and special education teacher before her son was diagnosed with autism. Services at IAN include applied behavioral analysis, speech, occupational therapy, social skills groups, therapeutic summer programs and after school programs.
“The majority of our clients are concentrated between ages 3 and 12 right now,” Marcela said. “We will be starting a team program this summer for teenagers, though.” Marcela explained that the programs IAN runs are very structured and focus on social skills, including language development.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and Marcela is working hard to focus on awareness with IAN. “It used to be one in 1,000 children would be accurately diagnosed when I started in this field over a decade ago,” she said. “Now it’s approximately one in 50 who are diagnosed and fall into the spectrum of autism disorders. I want people to be more aware of what a diagnosis looks like… that it isn’t always like the stereotypical depiction of non-verbal children who can’t control their movements. It’s very different than that. There are children on the autism spectrum who range from completely non-verbal to very verbal and Asperger’s children, who simply have very restricted patterns of interest.”
Along with Autism Awareness Month, IAN is holding Social Play Sundays. One was this past week and the next is April 21. Families engage in social games and activities in art, science and more. The reason that art and science are regularly incorporated into IAN programming is because the center relies heavily on research-based findings. Parents are even able to watch therapy sessions via an iPad or similar device from the waiting room, so that therapy results are not changed by their presence. “I felt like a lot of therapies were lacking in the fundamental question of ‘How do we help these kids?’ With other medical issues and diseases, there are cut and dry medications or therapies to treat the condition, but not with autism. Our best hope is to help these children meet their goals and reach a level of independence.”
While some families who use IAN combine therapies, the center’s focus is on constantly collecting data and having a control. When too many therapies are undertaken, there is no control and it’s hard to tell what is working and what isn’t, according to Marcela.
Along with their standard classes and programs, which earn money for the business, events like Social Play Sundays and an upcoming Zumba event in May go toward a large Autism Awareness Walk in June. Even though IAN is a for-profit establishment, they work closely with other non-profits to help fund services to families for whom they are out of financial reach. Most of their business is covered by many insurance plans as well.
IAN offers parent training and support groups and brings in speakers regularly. “We are very family-centered here and many of the families who are clients have ended up being good friends outside of the center. We want these children to have more coping skills, to allow themselves more flexibility in their lives. I’ve seen humongous growth for a lot of the children here. They come away with problem-solving skills and ways of thinking differently.”
You can learn more about IAN’s services, programs and autism awareness at iannetwork.com or check out their Facebook page, updated daily. IAN is located at 17 Farmington Ave. in Plainville, at the bottom rear of the plaza.