(From left) Douglas Acuff, Autism Treatment Center Residential Coordinator Cynthia Fox, and Michael DeKunder prepare dinner for the house residents.
(From left) Douglas Acuff, Autism Treatment Center Residential Coordinator Cynthia Fox, and Michael DeKunder prepare dinner for the house residents. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Autism diagnoses in the Bexar County area more than doubled in the last decade, requiring more services for a population that is increasing in size and growing older simultaneously.

In response, one facility, the Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio, has begun construction on its new Learning and Opportunity Center, which will expand the reach of its specialized education and vocational programs for children and adults. Both programs are at capacity within existing facilities.

“The rate of autism has grown, but so has our understanding of it and how to best interact” with people with this diagnosis,” said Cynthia Hamilton, the center’s director of development.

The number of students diagnosed with autism in local public schools increased 228 percent from 1,708 students in 2007 to 5,607 in 2016, according to research from the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. The students are in an area served by the Texas Education Service Center’s Region 20, which includes 85 public school districts within 18 counties, Bexar County being the largest.

Scheduled to open in December, the Autism Treatment Center’s new 20,000-square-foot building will sit next to the existing clinic at 15911 Nacogdoches Rd. Its design will accommodate the sensory needs of children and adults with autism, with particular attention to textures, lighting, and acoustics throughout the building. It will incorporate “way-finding features” that help guide patients based on colored pathways, natural light to diminish irregular light frequencies, and a specialized nursing station, Hamilton told the Rivard Report.

The nursing station will provide additional space so nursing students can observe trained specialists and learn how to work with autistic patients.

The new facility will expand the center’s Texas Education Agency-accredited school, which is full, and will include an aftercare program that autistic students’ siblings can attend.

“We found that there are not enough after-school programs for kids with autism where their siblings can go as well, and it’s hard for parents to take one kid to one place and another to a different one,” Hamilton said, adding that integrating students with and without autism helps enhance children’s social skills.

Public schools throughout the state are required to provide special education programming to children with autism. These classrooms integrate children with different abilities and diagnoses and teachers may struggle to meet the needs of each student.

Many students attend classes at the Autism Treatment Center because their behavior was too disruptive for them to remain in an integrated classroom. The center’s director, Ivy Zwicker, explained that the licensed teachers at the center create individualized education plans based on long-term behavior analysis. This helps shape students’ behavior to be more successful in a classroom setting based on what motivates them.

“Our kids needed their own model created for them,” Zwicker said, noting that for people with autism behavior is a form of communication, not a form of conduct.

Once students receive their personalized education plan, they return to their home school, where teachers are trained on how to implement that plan by the those who created it. Zwicker said this partnership aims to ease the burden on public school teachers to create meaningful education plans for students with autism, while managing a classroom full of students with different needs. 

There are only two schools in Bexar County that work to specifically meet the needs of students with autism: The Autism Treatment Center, which currently serves 16 students and is considered at capacity based on the needs of this group; and the Foundation School for Autism, which opened in 2010, and currently serves 40 students with a maximum capacity of 42.

The Autism Treatment Center is the only organization in Bexar County that offers services past basic education for autistic adults.

The expansion will boost the adult-services programming to include an adult-day program, vocational services, and teaching kitchen where participants will learn to cook and clean up after meals. Hamilton said people with less severe diagnoses largely lack services, a gap the new facility aims to fill.

“People tend to focus on kids with severe needs. Now we have this growing population of adults and young adults who just need some support with things that autism really impacts,” Hamilton said, citing services that help youth transition from middle to high school and others that assign autistic adults meaningful tasks throughout the day.

The cost of the new facility will be covered by $1.1 million raised during the organization’s Building Futures Capital Campaign. Big donors to the campaign include the Kronkosky Foundation, the Najim Family Foundation, Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio, Valero Energy Foundation, the Winch Family, and the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation.

The Autism Treatment Center of San Antonio was established in 1978, when a diagnosis of autism was still largely mysterious. At the time, one in 10,000 children were diagnosed with autism. Today, one in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.

The first Autism Treatment Center was founded in Dallas in 1976 by a small group of parents, all with autistic children who aged out of services provided through the nearest behavior-intervention program, located 70 miles away in North Texas. When San Antonio parents of children with autism heard about the new center in Dallas, they worked to develop a local program that officially opened two years later.

Jean DeKunder was among the parents who founded San Antonio’s center in 1978. Her son, Michael, started going to the center’s school when he was 11 and was among the first students to enter the program.

(From left) Michael DeKunder is given a hug by his mother Jean DeKunder as she visits his home.
Jean DeKunder (right) hugs her son, Michael, as she visits his home. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“When us parents got together, it was at a time when public schools didn’t have to accept autistic children,” DeKunder said, noting that advances in autism treatment at the time grew largely out of parent advocacy. “Word got out about the Autism Treatment Center [facilities in Dallas], that they were getting good results, and we met with the person in charge of the program and convinced them to help us start one in San Antonio.”

Today, Michael is about to celebrate his 50th birthday, which will include a birthday cake he plans to eat with his housemates at the adult-living facility – run by the Autism Treatment Center – that he calls home.

Full-time staff members help residents prepare dinner, complete housework, and participate in leisure activities such as art projects or watching movies, either alone or as part of a group. During the day, residents take part in programming at the educational center, which may include cooking, vocational, and independent living classes.

The Autism Treatment Center also offers autism-specific occupational and speech therapy for children and adults, diagnostic evaluation, and work on community education and awareness programs.

While DeKunder said she never thought she would put her son in a home, as he got older she saw an increased need for him to have a meaningful, independent life away from his parents. Because Michael can never live independently, DeKunder said she is grateful that the organization has expanded over the last 40 years to continue to serve Michael through adulthood.

Michael’s experience growing up within the Autism Treatment Center is a “big part of the center’s story,” Hamilton said. “We have grown through addressing the needs as this population has aged, changed, and grown. We have evolved as the impact of autism on the community has evolved and their needs have changed over time.”

Zwicker said that in 2013, the center began collecting data on the number of phone calls it received from people searching for autism resources – around 150 calls per month. In 2017, the center was fielding up to 550 calls monthly.

“It won’t be until we open this new building that we will be able to meet this growing need for services,” Zwicker said. “It allows us to continue to give both children and adults in this community what they need.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.