Freeman Health’s Ozark Center for Autism opened nine years ago in a 7,500 square-foot facility that had been designed specifically for the organization, but in May 2011, the building was destroyed in the catastrophic Joplin tornado. With $2.8 billion in damage, it was the costliest tornado in U.S. history.
Across the Freeman Health organization, eight facilities were lost in total. Although temporary space was secured for the autism center, the leaders planned to rebuild.
“Our first major goal was to get out of the leasing world and get back into a facility that was ours,” says Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services. “Our second goal was to finally have a fully customized facility for people with autism spectrum disorder.”
Bill and Virginia Leffen, a couple residing in Missouri, donated $3 million to replace the former center. In November, the 19,100 square-foot Bill and Virginia Leffen Center for Autism was the final Freeman Health building to be reopened.
The autism center focuses on inpatient child, youth and young adult development but has a growing outpatient program for in-home interventionist services as a result of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) being recently added to Missouri Medicaid.
“We have 76 names on a waiting list,” Mieseler says. “Autism treatment is very expensive and difficult for people to access for their children.”
Every setting within the facility was designed specifically for children to receive ABA—a teaching method for autistic children that focuses on the application of behavioral principles in everyday situations.
“They’re learning in the bathroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria—rarely do they get a break from learning,” Mieseler says. “From a clinical perspective, we have so many opportunities to do sensory and experiential learning.”
All of the walls feature a variety of textures from cold, smooth metal to soft carpet. The building is also color-coded to help the children with interior navigation.
“Because it’s so big, the kids have to leave their pod areas to go to the cafeteria, but they know how to get back by following their color,” she says. “And all of the water areas—the bathrooms and the fountains—are highlighted in blue.”
Another unique feature of the facility is a customized playground for children with developmental disabilities.
“It’s easy to access, and the flooring can be manipulated with wheelchairs and other assistive devices,” she says. “Kids with autism have a difficult time socializing and playing doesn’t always come naturally, so providing them with some sensory opportunities on the playground was really special for us.”
Mieseler adds that all the toys and structures are designed to help the children learn balance and practice social skills. Similar to the interior of the building, walkways are color coded to teach safety around the swing sets and slide, for example.
“The flooring is bouncy and has texture—the kids love it,” she adds. “The little ones all cried when they had to leave on the first day.”
The biggest challenge, Mieseler says, was overcoming the initial desire to customize everything in favor of staying in budget. Certain amenities, like an indoor swimming pool, had to be cut.
“You want it to be as perfect and as state of the art as it can be, but sometimes you have to make compromises,” she says. “But we have plenty of room to grow.”
Large investments were made in the lighting of the facility, which is designed specifically for people who have symptoms of autism spectrum disorder to have options in brightness and intensity.
“All of the rooms that are specific to the kids and young adults have various lighting options,” Mieseler says. “Some kids may prefer an indirect overhead light and others may need under cabinet lighting, which is a little softer.”
Instead of fluorescent bulbs, almost all the lighting in the facility is indirect and peeks out from behind fixtures resembling cylinders or skinny bars, for example.
“This type of lighting has been primarily used for cosmetics, but when we started talking to the architects, we realized that’s what we need so the lighting isn’t so intense,” she says.
With glass and openness used throughout the design of the building, Mieseler adds that windows were added so natural light can shine all the way through to its center.
The center has a separate wing dedicated to a special education center, with teachers on staff so children and youths referred from public schools can get the full curriculum they would normally get.
Older youth and young adults can receive late afternoon group sessions in independent living skills, communications skills, and general adult skills in a mock apartment that’s designed as if it’s on a city street.
“It allows them to cook, clean, do laundry, make a bed, hang up their clothes and all the things they would normally have to do if they were to transition from living in their family’s home to their own residence,” says Mieseler. “It’s important for them to assimilate and have the feeling of independence.”
Younger kids can practice doing everyday things, too. The center has a small theater where they can practice going to the movies, and there’s even a mock grocery store, dentist and hairdresser.
“We can start these things internally now and help transition them to the real world, which is a big deal,” she says.