The Autism Treatment Center
The new Autism Treatment Center has 20,000 square feet of space for educational and other therapeutic programs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Parents, educators, and autism advocates gathered Wednesday to celebrate the opening of the Autism Treatment Center’s new 20,000-square-foot facility in Northeast San Antonio.

The new Learning and Opportunity Center for children and adults with autism will expand the capacity of the organization’s specialized education and vocational programs, and add new services for young adults with autism who are transitioning from high school to independent living.

Autism diagnoses in the Bexar County area more than doubled in the last decade, according to research from the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. 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 a recent report.

“Half a million [young adults] with autism are going to graduate from high school in Texas, and as a society, we are not prepared for that” when it comes to ongoing services, said Cynthia Hamilton, development director of the Autism Treatment Center.

The $5.1 million project was designed with attention to texture, lighting,
and sound to provide a sensory-friendly environment. Built through contributions to a capital campaign, the facility will expand services and classroom sizes and provide space to hire more people to work with autistic children with challenging behaviors, including aggression or difficulty tolerating noise.

“We are going to expand services in this facility, but we are also expanding our community partnerships and outreach programs” to help families and schools understand and help meet the student’s needs, Hamilton said.

The Autism Treatment Center operates a Texas Education Agency-accredited school that currently has 19 students. Hamilton said the students are often referred to the center because “the family and school are in crisis” and a specialized school setting is needed.

Tracy Garcia’s 19-year-old son, Thomas, who has been diagnosed with autism and Down syndrome, was referred to the Autism Treatment Center from his home school in Alamo Heights ISD in eighth grade.

“The support the Autism Treatment Center is able to provide helped Thomas flourish and thrive tremendously,” she said. “I believe the schools were doing everything they could for him, given their training and resources, but they weren’t equipped to give Thomas” the assistance and direction needed to meet his goals.

All students at the Autism Treatment Center School are provided one-on-one teaching support and work with a behavior analyst and special education teacher, Hamilton said, noting that two-thirds of those students also live at the organization’s residential long-term care facilities.

Garcia said the one-on-one assistance provided to Thomas helped the family better understand his individual needs.

“Thomas is a twin, and his brother also has Down syndrome and autism, but only Thomas goes to the Autism Treatment Center,” Garcia said. “We want all of our children to be successful, but as an individual. We knew that a in a more general education setting he wouldn’t have been able to receive the same individualized education that he gets here.”

Musical instruments, books, and colorful toys line the shelves of a classroom at the Autism Treatment Center.
Musical instruments, books, and colorful toys line the shelves of a classroom at the Autism Treatment Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Thomas recently graduated from high school and is one of the 21,000 adults with autism spectrum disorder living in Bexar County. Most schools in Texas, including the Autism Treatment Center’s school – the Zajicek Learning Center – allow students to receive services until they are 22. Thomas will continue his education for the next three years at the center, focusing on building skills and exploring different vocations and volunteer opportunities throughout the community that align with his passion and skills, including cleaning and stocking groceries.

For others with autism, job exploration might include data entry, information technology, or customer-service positions.

Hamilton said that families often struggle when their child is no longer eligible to attend public schools because the wait list for federally funded programs for adults can be upwards of 15 years. By expanding vocational training and the Zajicek Learning Center’s capacity to serve more students one-on-one, the Autism Treatment Center is starting to “plan for a large increase in the autistic adult population.”

“By helping these people find a purpose and a meaningful way to spend their time and hone a skill, whatever that may be, we are helping the local community as a whole,” Hamilton said.

Garcia said her son enjoys the garden and going to the farm every Friday, in addition to visiting the new retail sales training area, where he looks forward to pushing shopping carts.

“Now that Thomas is transitioning to adulthood, like everyone else, he is still figuring it all out, and his family and his teachers are helping him figure out what his life will look like,” Garcia said. “Projecting out to 25 and older, I don’t want him to just sit at home. It’s so important to have a purpose, and he is finding that here.”

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