Ionut Moga, 11, is a cheerful, talkative, über sports fan who doesn't care that the name of the new clinic in the little white bungalow not far from the University of Kentucky main campus is CASPER, which stands for Center for Autism Spectrum Evaluation, Service, and Research.
He's unaware it offers diagnostic and social-skills assessments that many previously had to drive to Cincinnati or Louisville to get.
Ionut just knows that if he listens and practices what he learns it will help him make friends. Eventually, he hopes, they will come to his house to play.
Ionut and his mother, Dr. Daniela Moga, recently moved to Lexington, where she joined the UK department of pharmacy practice and science.
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Before she made the move from Iowa, she researched what was available to help her son, who like many on the autism spectrum needs help in mastering social skills. She heard good things about Lisa Ruble, associate professor of the department of educational, school, and counseling psychology, and psychology professor Jonathan Campbell. They just happen to now be directors at the clinic.
Ionut was one of the first clients. After just a few months, his mother sees progress in one of his major challenges — his love of enforcing the rules and reminding other kids about them. "I'm trying not to be 'the rules police,'" Ionut said, as his mom smiled.
Like many start-up endeavors, the clinic operates on a shoestring. A $25,000 grant was secured to renovate some of the rooms in the old, bungalow-style house on Maxwelton Court. And Campbell recently was awarded $30,000 from the Organization for Autism Research that will be used to design a "Kit for Kids" program to help elementary school-age kids understand autism.
In the clinic day-to-day, Campbell and Ruble, who added the clinic to their already full plates as professors, oversee graduate students providing diagnostic assessment, social-skills evaluation, and individual and group therapy.
Awareness of autism and disorders on the autism spectrum has risen steadily in the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 150 kids showed signs of an autism-spectrum disorder in 2000. By 2008, that number had risen to one in 88.
But Ruble said while common recognition of the disease has increased, there are many doctors and counselors who are reluctant or feel ill-equipped to offer definitive autism diagnoses. Because it is "a diagnosis based on behavior not a medical test," some doctors might not see enough patients to truly recognize the correct symptoms, Campbell said. For example, he said, being extremely quiet could indicate an autism-spectrum disorder, but so can being highly talkative but easily fixated on a single topic.
"There is definitely more awareness," Campbell said, "but you still have professionals who don't feel comfortable rendering a diagnosis."
Getting diagnosed can be the first step for preschool or school-age children to get the services they need, Ruble said. Misdiagnosis can lead to a child being put on medication that won't be helpful and could have other side effects.
"We lag in this state in identifying children early and getting them help," Campbell said.
Once testing is completed, the clinic can help with support through counseling and education for the whole family. The clinic, which doesn't take insurance, operates on a sliding scale.
Often, parents with a new diagnosis are overwhelmed and don't know how best to move forward, Ruble said. A link on the CASPER website, for example, lists 10 things families should do after diagnosis. It includes checking on whether a child would qualify for a Medicaid waiver, which could provide in-home services, to planning for day and summer camps suitable for kids with autism.
In the clinic the faculty members can supervise graduate students dealing with real-world situations, which will help them learn the best way to deal with these children.
Campbell said he was surprised to see so many families of young adults at the clinic's open house earlier this fall.
But Kay Wright, president of the non-profit Embracing Asperger Gifts and Life Experiences, isn't surprised.
The group, based in Lexington, supports many adults, including Wright's son, who can have trouble finding support once they graduate from high school. Even those who manage to go to college and get degrees, which often uses tools in their rule-following wheelhouse, can be hindered by their lack of social skills in the current competitive job market, she said. Her group already offers support groups but she is looking forward to working closely with the clinic.
"We have many, many adults in the 20, 30s and 40s who have autistic-spectrum disorders," she said. "They need the opportunity to build mutually supportive relationships. They need to have a place where they can go."
The clinic, she said, "is very much needed."
Ultimately the clinic hopes to add a full-time clinical director to help more families, Campbell said, adding that would take some fund raising.
In the meantime, he said, the number of clients will continue to grow, along with the clinic's list of proper referrals. Campbell, Ruble and their team would continue to get the CASPER name and mission in front of families so they know help is available.
"We want people to know about us for sure," he said.