"I feel that everyone should have a voice, everyone should be heard, and if there are problems, we should be able to solve them. The way to solve problems: communication and collaboration.”
That’s the attitude Templeton resident Juli Miller has brought to the creation of the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center, a facility years in the planning that’s now slated to open its doors in late January.
Her efforts are the stuff of Unsung Heroes.
Bringing the center into reality has been a passionate labor of love for the mother of three. As Dr. Debra L. Balke of Child Neurology of SLO notes: “She has completely and entirely dedicated herself full time, without compensation, for the past several years to ensure the creation and viability of this nonprofit organization.”
“As long as I can remember, I’ve always been doing something for someone, from middle school age on,” the self-professed Type A personality said. “I was a Girl Scout Junior Aide who worked with deaf and hard of hearing girls because I knew sign language. I was a camp counselor and pre-school teacher, always working with children. Sounds so corny, but I really enjoy the feeling of helping.”
The need for an autism center on the Central Coast is, sadly, growing. Ten years ago, one in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today, one in every 150 children is being diagnosed, with a new diagnosis being made every 20 minutes. For boys, that ratio is one in every 94. The bulk of those diagnoses are made when the child is between 18 and 20 months. There’s no definitive cause for the condition.
Although improvements in diagnostics probably account for some of those increases, there are other children who may be too high functioning to qualify for services.
“So we don’t know exactly how many kids have autism spectrum disorder,” Miller said.
A Simi Valley native, Miller earned an associate degree in child development, moved to Santa Barbara and directed the E.L. Weigand Infant Care Center at Transition House, an infant care center for families experiencing homelessness.
“When families transitioned — through education — out of the shelter, it was a high. It felt so good to see someone succeed,” she said of her motivation in working with others.
Miller then earned a bachelor’s degree in social services administration from Antioch University. She also carved out time to create a student council at the university.
“My mother says I’ve always been a mischief maker,” Miller said.
She moved to the county in 1997 and to Templeton five years ago, a situation she said “feels like coming home” because of the warmth of the community and neighbors.
Two and-a-half years ago Dr. Balke, knowing her background, invited her to a meeting of Autism Spectrum Kids.
“I was taken with the passion and struggles of families of autism; the sacrifices and difficulties of getting services and getting people of like mind together,” Miller said.
Although The Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center has been operating out of a “virtual office” in the interim, California PsychCare recently donated a space at 889 Murray St., Suite 200 in San Luis Obispo.
“Our grand opening is set for Jan. 30,” Miller said, “but we don’t have any furniture, so if anyone can make a donation that would be great.”
She can be reached at 235-6596 or at the center’s Web site, AutismSpectrumCenter.com.
The center’s mission is “to expand and centralize access to information and services for individuals, families and professionals touched by autism.”
As such, the Murray Street office will have an extensive resource library that will have weighted vests (which help a child feel secure), tapes and books for those families dealing with autism spectrum.
“Anyone who wants to move forward can and will,” Miller said. “The trouble is finding services and service providers to help do that. That’s the idea of the center: pull it all into one spot.”
As the interim director and chair of the center’s six-member board of directors, Miller said she’s casting a wider net for volunteers through creation of an advisory committee and asking for input from parents, professionals and people in the community who are connected.
The bottom line for Juli Miller is this: “I really love it when someone tells me something can’t be done. There’s no such thing as can’t. If we can’t do something because of liability issues, let’s find out why. Let’s put our collective heads together.”
Spoken as a true unsung hero.
Local Section, B-3
The Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center recently received $3,000 from McCarthy's Irish Pub in San Luis Obispo. The money came from a recent fundraiser, the Mike McGee Crawfish Boil.
The center aims to expand and centralize access to information and services on autism spectrum disorder for Central Coast residents, families and professionals.
Column: County Roundup
The Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center will recognize April as Autism Awareness Month.
The organization exists to expand and centralize services and information for individuals, families and professionals touched by autism spectrum disorders. The group will host a picnic at 1 p. m. April 5 at Templeton Park.
Attendees should bring blankets and their own picnic lunches.
The Paso Robles Children's Museum hosts hours for children with special needs on the third Sunday of every month, and there will be a special time for children with autism from 10 a. m. to noon April 20.
The center also has launched a new Web site at www.autismspectrumcenter.com.
AFTER THE AUTISM DIAGNOSIS, WHERE DO PARENTS TURN?
THAT'S THE QUESTION THAT'S BEING ANSWERED LOCALLY WITH THE EFFORT TO START A RESOURCE CENTER HERE
As the number of San Luis Obispo County children with autism increases, local parents and health care professionals are working to create a resource center to help parents figure out how and where to best help their child.
When parents learn their child has an autism spectrum disorder, they initially feel shock and grief, said Judi Miller, a Templeton mother of three. Eventually, fear, frustration and confusion follow as the parents seek help. That's why Miller and others are working to create the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center to centralize information on autism services in the county.
"Right now, the services for children, families and professionals that are affected by and work with autism spectrum disorders are really fragmented in our county and difficult to find," Miller said.
She said she hopes the resource center will open next year as a one-stop clearinghouse of autism information with a free library, autism treatment and provider database, and a support network for parents. Eventually, it will collaborate with Cal Poly to provide training to local educators, she said.
The center has found office space and is seeking funding and applying for grants, Miller said.
Autism is a neurological disorder marked by impaired communication, poor social skills and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The spectrum encompasses a broad range of autistic symptoms and levels of disabilities. It ranges from children who are highly intelligent but socially awkward to those who may never learn to speak.
The most recent national data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 150 American 8-year-olds has an autism spectrum disorder.
In the past six years, the number of autistic children in San Luis Obispo County nearly quadrupled, to 201 in 2006 from 56 in 2000. In 1991, the county had only one person younger than 23 diagnosed.
The trend shows no sign of slowing. Experts don't know exactly why numbers are increasing but do know more parents are seeking diagnoses and the definition of the disorder has broadened.
Parents and school officials say the rapid spike in children diagnosed with autism has made it difficult for health and education services providers to meet the demand, especially in a rural area such as San Luis Obispo County, where just 10 years ago there were no autism-specific services.
A local solution
Debra Balke, a Templeton pediatric neurologist and mother of a son with autism, said the fragmentation of services is a statewide issue, but San Luis Obispo County parents are developing a local solution by creating this resource and education center.
"As a parent, this is a dire need," Balke said. "As a professional, I look at it as an impossible situation. ... There are very few providers locally who are available to serve these children, and a lot of times they aren't accessible for months."
Part of the center's mission will be to team up with Cal Poly to provide training and clinical services to local educators.
Centralizing services will make it easier for Cal Poly students and faculty to volunteer, conduct research and offer training, said Mike Reuf, a professor in the university's graduate teaching program and coordinator of special education courses.
Cal Poly professionals and graduate students will ensure the resource center promotes only research-based treatments and help train the county's education workforce on autism issues, Reuf said.
He thinks the resource center can help alleviate adversarial relationships between parents and school districts over autism services by providing a place where parents can receive objective references and alternative outlet for their frustration.
Local school districts have settled multiple lawsuits in recent years filed by parents over autism services.
"Even though the parents have started this, it's not meant to be parents against schools or professionals in any way," he said. "It's open to everybody."
* * *
AUTISM IN SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY
The number of people under age 23 diagnosed with autism between 1991 and 2006 in San Luis Obispo County:
1991 . . . . . . . . 1
1992 . . . . . . . . 6
1993 . . . . . . . . 9
1994 . . . . . . . 15
1995 . . . . . . . 17
1996 . . . . . . . 20
1997 . . . . . . . 24
1998 . . . . . . . 31
1999 . . . . . . . 50
2000 . . . ... . . 56
2001 . . . . . . . 77
2002 . . . . . . 109
2003 . . . . . . 120
2004 . . . . . . 144
2005 . . . . . . 175
2006 . . . . . . 201
SOURCE: San Luis Obispo County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA)