Hermantown's Caravel Autism Health, the area's newest behavioral health facility, is already working to help children with autism learn basic skills to help them interact with others.
The clinic's director, Zachary Campbell, said the specific work they do aims to help children with the most severe cases of autism as early as possible to correct their behaviors.
“We’re going to take in kids who are having issues with not speaking, not communicating, not making eye contact. They might be spinning or walking on their tippy-toes," Campbell said.
The clinic opened in January and has been gradually accepting clients since March.
Caravel staff will conduct testing during the screening process to diagnose or verify autism, and if the child and the clinic are a good match, behavioral therapists will create an individual treatment plan for them. The best-case scenario, Campbell said, is to catch symptoms of autism when the child is around 18 months to 2 years old and to begin working with therapists right away.
The program's rigor will vary, but can require up to 40 hours a week with clinicians, which is slowly decreased as the child learns behaviors and eases into a school program. Treatment is a combination of one-on-one work with behavioral therapists and collaborative work with other children at the center.
At Caravel, there are classrooms designed for different ages of children to work in. The center accepts children from 18 months to 18 years old, but Campbell said it wouldn't be the ideal setting for children who are at a higher function or older mental capacity.
The color scheme of Caravel features soothing colors and designs, like the blue waves that flow across the hallway walls. This is to help children who have sensory issues from becoming overwhelmed. Each classroom also has a small adjacent room to take children into alone if they get overwhelmed by light, noise or temperature in group learning settings.
The center has a sensory playroom with a swing, tunnel, scooters and stepping stones that is used not only for a fun break for the clients, but also for testing skills. Therapists can collect data about how well a child is responding to directions and whether they are able to complete an exercise.
“We always make sure that they have the time to do their therapy one on one with their therapists, but also in a group setting so they get to play, sing, dance. Anything to get them moving and to see other kids working together is important, and we try to make it as fun as possible,” Campbell said.
The clinic will specially select toys for clients depending on their preferences. For example, some children prefer toys that play sound effects or music, while other children can't handle that. Campbell also said the colors or type of toy, like a horse or truck, might specifically interest that child. They are then able to use the toys as a reward or break throughout their treatment.
“If that’s the piece that’s rewarding for them, we’ll do the really tough, skill-based thing first, then they’ll work to get to play with the truck for like five minutes. Then it’s time to do another trial," Campbell said. "We do that back and forth for eight hours a day. It’s intense, but we’ve found the repetitive motion helps rewire the brain.”
The neuroreceptors in the brains of people with autism don't function the way neurotypical brains do. Campbell said working with children as early as possible can help reset those pathways. The most successful treatment happens in children between ages 2 and 5.
Caravel currently can have 24 full-time clients, but can accommodate up to 35 if some only need part-time treatment. Campbell is in the process of doubling his staff over the summer, and will have 20 clinicians by July. The dependency on the large number of staff helps children get the one-on-one time needed for a successful transition out of therapy and into a school or home setting.
“We’ve found that our outcome studies are stronger than other companies because there’s so much attention in that dynamic, and the kids will grow and learn faster,” Campbell said. “They may not speak, they may not have the highest level of intelligence in terms of being able to master an "A" in math, but at least they’re engaging. And if we didn’t intervene, who knows what would happen, and that’s the scary part — ignoring it or pretending it’s not happening.”
Part of Caravel's treatment includes an hour a week spent with families to ensure the progress made at the center doesn't regress outside the learning environment. Coaching and mentoring families and other caregivers helps them continue to work with the children at home.
Once the child shows signs of behavior improvement with expression, socialization, daily living, functionality and adaptive skills, they begin to transition into learning at school. Caravel works with schools' individualized education programs to make sure the behavior is transferring to other environments.
Caravel also collaborates with other area specialists, including Essentia Health's Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center and the Minnesota Masonic Children's Clinic for Communication Disorders. The providers work together to ensure the child does all necessary behavior, occupational, physical and speech therapy. Caravel may also recommend prospective clients to Nystrom & Associates, Accend or the Human Development Center, which offer different services that may better serve those patients.
In Minnesota, one in 42 8-year-olds has an autism spectrum disorder, according to 2018 research from the Minnesota Autism Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. This is higher than the national average of one in 59. Campbell said Caravel is fortunate to be in Hermantown, where local college students are being trained with the skills necessary to work with children with autism. He expects Caravel, which currently has 40 clinics across the country, to more than double its national presence in the next two years because the demand is so high.
“We didn’t come in competitively, we came in to see how we can collaborate on services and bounce off each others’ ideas,” he said. “The worst thing in the world is to identify a child with autism and plug them into a waiting list.”
Caravel Autism Health is located at 4140 Richard Ave., suites 200 and 300.