Autism Center to open in Greenwood

For the first time, Greenwood will have a center dedicated to providing services, therapy and education to children with autism.

Project Hope Foundation is a nonprofit based in the Upstate that focuses on offering services to children and families affected by autism with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and a wide range of support services.

About two years ago, Project Hope was looking to expand its services in South Carolina, and already had a few places in mind -- Aiken, Charleston and Columbia -- but after meeting with several community leaders, it set its sights on Greenwood.

Lisa Lane and Susan Sachs, co-founders and executive directors of the organization, said Dr. Steve Skinner, director of the Greenwood Genetic Center, first started the talks to expand to Greenwood and brought with him about 25 representatives and community leaders to the table.

"When we walked into that room, we were astounded," Sachs said. "He had people from the school district, the Genetic Center, from Lander, from Piedmont Tech -- this entire team of people that wanted to hear about what we were doing and see how they could partner with us to provide ABA services in the Greenwood area."

The Genetic Center has already started partnering with Project Hope, and Skinner said the desire is that their partnership will grow.

"They're helping us with research and then we're trying to help them with evaluations and patients we receive," Skinner said. "We see so many families in Greenwood with autism -- we were able to connect them with a family that was very impressed and excited about what they were doing in the Simpsonville-Greenville area, and wanted to help bring it here."

Project Hope has already contributed to the Genetic Center's research on autism by sending in blood samples of people with autism as well as people who don't have autism.

Currently, autism is diagnosed by studying the child's behavior, generally after 3 years of age. Skinner said the goal is to develop a blood-based test that can identify if a child has autism at an earlier age. 

"Autism is a broad spectrum," Skinner said. "Some of them will be in regular classrooms, some of them will be in different types of structured classrooms."

Greenwood has not had a center dedicated to providing ABA therapy, and Skinner said children who need those services previously had to travel out of the county.

"Autism is common. It occurs now in one in 68 children, or one in 42 males. So it affects a large segment of our population in general -- almost every family is affected somewhere in the family," Skinner said. 

Unfortunately, this means the centers that do provide therapy for children with autism often have a long waiting list, and Skinner said a key part of ABA therapy is starting it at a young age.

"That's the tragedy of having these long waiting lists -- you identify a patient at 3 and say 'Yes, you have autism, yes, you need ABA services, but good luck trying to find it because we don't have any therapists or we don't have any in your area.' And so they wait three, four years and they're missing critical times in their early childhood development," Skinner said. "So having that locally and having, hopefully, a program that can train more providers who will provide even more therapy is critical to a successful outcome of autism."

A family who chose to remain anonymous purchased the old Merrywood Elementary School building and donated it to Project Hope to use as a facility earlier this year, and the center is expected to be up and running by September.

Lane said the center's primary focus will be providing ABA therapy to clients.

"This therapy is different from what many people think of when they think about therapy -- it's a way to teach skills to children on the autism spectrum and to replace problem behaviors with appropriate, alternative behaviors," Lane said. "So it's teaching, and you can teach almost anything using these strategies, but it's intensive -- so you do it a total of 25 to 40 hours each week."

The Greenwood location will start off serving a few clients all day, but Lane said they hope to grow and have various schedules suited to the children's needs. 

Right now, Project Hope is in the process of hiring two to three therapists, a lead therapist and a board certified behavioral analyst to work at the Greenwood location full time when it opens in September.

"It is a fee-based service, but we take insurance clients and there's some Medicaid money that comes for clients," Lane said. "There are options. There are gaps in funding -- our reimbursement rate is not the same as our cost of services, but we work hard to fill those gaps."

Skinner said the Project Hope expansion is not only a major asset to Greenwood, but also to South Carolina. 

"It's a big step," Skinner said. "I think this has the potential to have a significant impact helping families, but actually something that could be a major service provider for the state."