Central Autism Assessment and Treatment Center to see improvements after $92,500 grant

Bay City Graduate student Kaitlyn Biddle discusses work with her colleagues Charlie Sims, left, and Robert Wyse, right on Jan. 17 in the CAAT Center.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Mount Pleasant community will see expanded treatment services thanks to a state grant.

The Central Autism Assessment and Treatment Center received $92,500 from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Oct. 1. Clinic Director Dr. Christie Nutkins said this is the fourth year the CAAT center has received a MDHHS grant. 

Part of the grant will be used to supplement student salaries.

The center, which opened four years ago, provides a place to train Central Michigan University students in Applied Behavior Analysis, a common form of treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Dr. Seth Whiting, the clinic's director of training, said there are 30-40 undergraduate and graduate students working there this semester.

Whiting said the demand for trained, board-certified behavior analysts and assistant behavior analysts is rapidly increasing. The CAAT center is trying to keep up with the demand by training students in the principles of treating autism.

According to Autism Society, an organization that works to promote the awareness and understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder, autism is a developmental disability that can lead to difficulty with executive functioning, such as reasoning and planning. Symptoms of autism also include intense, single-minded interests and degradation of motor skills and sensory sensitivities.

“We teach the students how to engage in behavioral observation, a part of ABA,” Whiting said. “We also prepare them to handle challenging behaviors and to overcome ethical dilemmas.”

Students work at the clinic to meet requirements for receiving their board certification, and to gain experience working with patients. Undergraduate students need a minimum of 1,000 hours of supervised experience. Graduate students need 1,500 hours of supervised experience. 

Lakeview senior Molly Conway has been working at the CAAT center for more than a year.  She is currently a senior lead clinician at the center, meaning she takes on her own clients and writes training programs for them.  As a senior lead clinician, she also acts as a resource for other students working at the clinic by helping with training sessions and giving them advice about problems that may arise at the clinic.

"We all start off not knowing what to do, so it's really nice to see (clinicians) gain confidence and find their voice," Conway said.

After graduating, Conway plans to attend graduate school at CMU and continue working at the clinic.

Whiting said students receive a minimum of 40 hours of ABA training through coursework before working with clients. When they work in the clinic, they receive hands-on experience working with patients and making plans for treatment. They always work with Nutkins or Whiting, the supervisors at the clinic. 

Students work in the clinic for 10-30 hours per week, Whiting said. Most students get paid for their work in the clinic, while some volunteer their time. 

The grant the CAAT center received last year is meant for treatment and training, not for assessment.

The Assessment Center is separate from the Treatment Center. The Assessment Center is located in the Carls Center for Clinical Care and Education in the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Health Professions Building. 

The Treatment Center is located on University Park Drive near Bennigan’s.

Dr. Melissa Tuttle, director of Autism Assessment , said the assessment Center's main source of funding is revenue from insurance billing. When a patient goes to the Assessment Center, their health insurance company typically pays the bill for the service.

Tuttle said the Assessment Center is not only self-sustaining — it is growing. The center brings in patients from all over Michigan. She said they see about 10-20 patients each month. Tuttle added that a lot of patients go to the CAAT center for assessment because they have a relatively short waitlist.

“Early intervention is the key to improving skill development,” Tuttle said. “Some families have to wait months or years before going in for assessment. We try to keep our waitlist short, about six months, so families can start treatment as soon as possible.”

The CAAT center is currently planning to expand services, improve training for students and partner with local organizations to increase autism awareness and promote early intervention.

Nutkins said the clinic is currently treating 19 children, ranging in ages two to 19. The clinic uses different forms of Applied Behavior Analysis to treat autism.

Whiting is excited to see how the grant helps the CAAT center expand. 

"It gives us the chance to make an impact on the community," Whiting said. "The best thing about it is the large potential to make a beneficial impact on local kids in need. Obviously, we are trying to support the kids."

More information on the CAAT center can be found on its website.