Despite a demonstrated need from the Kirksville community for Truman State University’s Greenwood School Autism Center, renovation of the building continues to stall because of a lack of continuous funding from the state.
Janet Gooch, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, said Truman purchased the former elementary school in 1999 and used it as a storage space until former university president Troy Paino proposed to use the space as an autism center. Gooch said the center was going to offer interprofessional approaches for helping individuals eighteen and younger, and their families, with autism and other neurological conditions.
Gooch said Truman has consulted with medical partners like A.T. Still University and Kirksville College of Osteopathic Mecidine about the center as well as the Kirksville school district. Gooch said it was important to get everyone in the community behind the project because there is a significant public need for an autism center in town.
Despite initially receiving $1.5 million for the center, Gooch said Gov. Eric Greitens decided to withhold the remaining funding. Gooch said the new funding plan involved Greitens giving the center an additional $1.5 million, which would be spread out over a time period. Gooch said Truman didn’t end up receiving the promised bonus. Though funding for the center has been complicated, Gooch said she doesn’t blame Greitens for his decision regarding the project.
“He’s a new governor, and I think he needs to figure out what is necessary for the state,” Gooch said. “Of course I would have loved to see [the state] come into our community and to assist people in need, but I’m really not qualified to say whether that was a good decision or a bad decision because I really don’t understand the fiscal responsibilities that he needs to complete as governor. The promise to fund the Greenwood project came from [Nixon], before Greitens, and every governor needs to decide how they’re going to prioritize the state budget.”
Though Paino was successful in obtaining a sum amount of funding from the state, Gooch said the total cost to fund the project amounted to $5.5 million, which the University did not receive. Gooch said the initial $1.5 million the project received was used toward hiring an architectural firm to plan the renovation of Greenwood. The plans for the building have been finished, Gooch said, but the problem is the project and Truman don’t have the additional funding to start the construction.
Gooch said the $1.5 million went toward remodeling fundamentals in Greenwood like a new heating and cooling system, windows, walls, carpeting, brick work, elevator and handicap-accessible bathrooms. Gooch said the finished building would contain areas for diagnostic work as well as classroom space and smaller clinical rooms for patients to be seen individually.
The center would provide more than diagnostic services, Gooch said, with occupational and physical therapy services as well. Gooch said programs like family therapy, education on autism for the community, and education for professionals who work with autism would also be available.
Gooch said Truman always knew it was possible the money the state promised might not go through. Funding the center is still a possibility, she said, but Truman will just have to find different ways to raise the money. Gooch said some options include seeking private donations and grants and asking Greitens for another appeal.
The need for autism services in Kirksville and Northeast Missouri is high, Gooch said —especially since Columbia, about 90 miles away, is the closest place for autistic services.
“Cost is always a factor,” Gooch said. “There’s a lot of families who really can’t afford a drive to and from Columbia on a routine basis, and it’s a hardship because parents would have to take off work and all that.”
The center has only received positive support from the Kirksville community, Gooch said. Gooch said an autism center is still a feasible idea, and people should not lose hope.
While the Life Ability Center has not been directly involved with the Greenwood school project, its coordinator KimBaker said LAC is still interested in eventually collaborating with the center since LAC doesn’t provide any clinical therapy. Baker said LAC could offer the center its resources and could help identify clients for them to work with.
While having an autism center has several positive aspects, Baker said one key benefit is it could help change the stigma that sometimes surrounds autism. Baker said all the center would have to do is encourage people with disabilities and people without disabilities to get to know one another. Helping introduce the general public to autism and other disabilities is important, Baker said, as well as promoting inclusiveness, support and awareness.
Baker said one of the most common misconceptions she’s experienced is underestimating the capability of someone with autism and not understanding their behavior.
“I think a lot of times people try to stop self-stimulatory behaviours and other things [autistic] people use to self soothe …” Baker said. “Rather than trying to stop those behaviors, people need to look and see why the person is using that behavior. And that’s not really a bad thing— that’s how they calm themselves down— and it’s not something to be punished [for] or [gotten] rid of.”
Baker said she’s unsure if autistic needs are being met by the community, but the services can always be improved. She said that while Kirksville offers many disability services, its population of people with autism would benefit from services specifically tailored to their needs. Baker said if people aren’t in support of disability education and therapy, then they probably haven’t been exposed to autism yet and haven’t seen the abilities those people have.
Baker said she wants to help those in the community with autism live their best life, make their own goals and work competitively in the community.
Baker said she and LAC will continue to support the center and she said having a center would be great because it would offer different resources than LAC. Baker said LAC is free and open to all ages.
Jaxon Laudwig, a frequent LAC attendee, said he supports the idea of an autism center and the change it could bring. Laudwig said it could be fun for participants at the center, teach the public more about autism and bring a lot of good to the Kirksville community as well. Laudwig said the center could also teach important lessons of how to interact with autistic people through observation.
Laudwig said being autistic and living and interacting with people in a small town like Kirksville has mostly been positive.
“It’s had its ups and downs, but it’s been pretty good so far,” Laudwig said. “[At my school] they had private tutoring and some methods of teaching [to] help with certain stressors [and] ways of calming down. There were a few times when people weren’t quite as nice, but there were some other times when more often people were friendly. Sometimes, I feel like the people around here get bullied because they’re different— but hey, it’s our differences that make our world unique— so I think maybe at least a little bit more attention [to autism] is in order.”
One of the biggest things people misunderstand about autism, Laudwig said, is the behaviors and just how complex they are. Laudwig said autistic programming and education should be a priority, especially considering more extreme cases of autism. Laudwig said people miss out on what those with autism have to offer. If people got to know autistic individuals better, Laudwig said people could have the opportunity to see the special talents that people with autism have.