Ozark Center for Autism aims to rebuild after Joplin tornado

Monday, June 20, 2011 | 9:56 a.m. CDT; updated 2:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 19, 2011

JOPLIN — Families whose children get some of the best autism services available are scrambling for help after a prominent treatment facility was destroyed in the tornado that ravaged the city of Joplin last month.

The Ozark Center for Autism, which has a national reputation and draws families to the area, offers hands-on, intensive therapyfor those of an early age. The program had recently added a diagnostic team and was slated to expand with services for adults, including vocational training.However, the May 22 tornado that pummeled the city, killing more than 150 people and injuring hundreds, demolished the center.

It has relocated to an indoor skate park on the outskirts of town until it can move to another temporary facility closer to its previous location.Fewer families can easily reach the current location though, and while Ozark Center staff members have increased their number of home visits, they are concerned that some children could see their progress halted.

"The children will lose some of the skills they've gained if they're not seen immediately," said Paula Baker, chief clinical officer for Freeman Health System, which owns and operates the autism center.

The destroyed Ozark Center included not just the autism school but residential and outpatient psychiatric care and substance abuse treatment units, collectively serving more than 13,000 patients in a four-state region. Baker said that the system plans to completely rebuild, and is especially committed to its autism program, which serves a dozen preschool students, four in a new K-12 program and 40 other families receiving in-home care.

"Obviously, it's been devastating," Baker said. "But we are committed to rebuilding the program. The tornado will never blow away our commitment to helping these children."


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