Imagine your life just got turned upside down. You’ve been forced to move away from your home, your friends, maybe even your extended family. You arrive in a new town where you don’t know a single person, and street names might as well be written in another language because you have no idea where you are.
In addition to all of this, imagine you have a child with autism spectrum disorder who only thrives when everything remains the same and routines are adhered to, and most-importantly requires immediate placement into therapy services. This is the reality for the countless parents of children on the spectrum who arrive at new military duty stations around world each day, including those arriving at Tacoma’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).
With one in 68 children receiving an autism diagnosis these days, it should come as no surprise that there is a direct correlation between the rate of incidence and the swelling wait lists for services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, and applied behavior analysis (ABA). In our local area, some wait lists idle families for several months, or as much as a year, before they can start services. This can be especially troublesome for families who finally navigate these wait lists only to be sent to a new base to begin the wait all over again.
“The military has recognized for years the need to help families that have children with special health care needs, especially those on the autism spectrum,” said Maj. Daniel Tolson, a pediatric physician for Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM. “We started having conversations about how we could better serve our patients, so we set up meetings with Army Community Services and people around JBLM with the idea that maybe we could set up our own autism services center.”
The idea was presented to Madigan Army Medical Center’s commander, Col. Michael Place, who also has a child on the autism spectrum. “He heard this idea and he said he was ‘wildly excited about doing this,’” Tolson said. “So (we moved forward) with his support, using his influence in pushing this idea through the chain (of command).”
As it happened, the base had built a new Child Development Center in anticipation of overcrowding in their current centers. However, the center was never used, so it became the home of the Department of Defense’s first ever autism center — JBLM Center for Autism Resources, Education, and Services (or JBLM CARES, for short). JBLM CARES’ mission is to help bridge the gap between arriving at a new base and finally getting to the end of a lengthy wait list.
“Obviously, our main mission as soldiers is to deploy, fight, and win our battles,” Tolson said. “Part of that includes feeling ready to be able to leave your family. This will help instill that confidence in our soldiers (because) their families are being taken care of.”
The center — which had its grand opening over the summer — does more than just provide therapy services. It also helps provide resources to families through its growing library, hosts regular sensory-friendly events for children, and offers support services for caregivers.
As the first base to pilot a program like this, Tolson said he hopes more bases will adopt some form of this service to help families in need.
“It will involve taking a look at other bases and seeing what their specific needs are,” he said. “But if we can set up a model that can be emulated, then great; we’ll help out with that, even if it is just components of what we are doing here.”