Bridging Gaps and Pioneering Autism Services for Jackson County

CSF’s Home & Community Based Intervention Services funding is dedicated to bridging the gap for children in Jackson County who require access to behavioral health care in their homes and neighborhoods. Partner organizations that are funded under this service area offer a range of interventions, including evaluations to diagnose mental and behavioral health issues, evidence-based therapies and treatment plans. It’s crucial for children to have reliable access to this care as it can significantly shape their home, school and social experiences. Without these services, children may face lasting challenges in their development and interactions with the world.

One such partner organization is the Kansas City Autism Training Center (KCATC). For many children on the autism spectrum and their families, finding effective evidence-based treatment in the KC Metro area is a tremendous challenge. That’s why the Kansas City Autism Training Center (KCATC) exists—to offer a range of clinical services, including applied behavior analysis (ABA), a preschool program and a summer camp for children from 18 months to eight years. The CSF partners with KCATC to help keep these services affordable and accessible.

Pioneering Center-Based ASD Services for Children in the KC Metro

KCATC was founded in 2006 by Ron Johnson, who has a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Johnson was frustrated by the lack of center-based programs in the Midwest that offered intensive ABA therapy for children with ASD. He wanted to create a program that would provide consistent and comprehensive services in a typical school-like setting, where children could learn from each other and interact with peers. He also wanted to relieve the burden on parents who had to manage home-based programs and were on their own to recruit staff and raise funds for their children’s therapy. 

With the help of a grant from the Kauffman Foundation and the collaboration of professors from the University of Kansas, Johnson started KCATC in a one-room building with one program director, one staff member, and one child. Since then, KCATC has grown to a 22,000-square-foot building on 7.5 acres, with a capacity to serve 25 to 30 children with ASD. More commonly known to the public by their school name, Astra Day School, KCATC serves children from 18 months to eight years old, with a focus on early intervention. Their preschool program is particularly unique in the KC Metro area in that it integrates children with and without ASD. “It’s amazing, looking back, at how many kiddos came here with zero language and leave with thousands of words, transition into their regular school district, and are successful and moving forward,” says Johnson.

Director of Clinical Services Megan Hader shared how the staff at KCATC are board-certified behavior analysts who use ABA techniques to teach skills and monitor progress. With support from CSF funding, KCATC also offers a summer program for alumni who have transitioned to other schools. In this program, middle and high schoolers get to work on more advanced social skills, enjoy camp-like activities and, of course, have the joy of returning to a group of peers who are also growing up and traversing life with ASD. 

Partnering for Access to Care and Improved Outcomes 

As vital as KCATC’s services are for children with ASD, consistent and affordable access to them would have been near impossible without CSF partnership, attests Johnson. To put it simply, CSF funding helps KCATC bridge the gaps created by the restrictiveness of the insurance system. This happens in a couple of ways.

For one, CSF funds help cover the unreimbursed time that the staff spends on training, prepping and graphing, which are essential for providing quality ABA therapy. According to Johnson, this allows each child to receive 1.5 hours more of therapy per day than for-profit service providers, which translates to nearly 10 days more of therapy per year. “We believe that we have about two more hours of therapy per day per child the way that we operate. And so if you translate that out over the 230 days that we’re open, that almost provides over two weeks of additional therapy within the same given time period, which improves the outcomes that we have for the children that we provide services to,” Johnson said. 

Further, most insurance companies arbitrarily limit or deny coverage for the therapy that the children need. Hader provided the example of therapy for older children, which may be more intensive and require 40 hours, but insurance companies cut off coverage at 20 hours. “The CSF allows us to increase their hours on a weekly basis so that they get the actual hours they need even if reimbursement is not provided by the insurance company,”  said Hader.

CSF also makes it possible for KCATC to collaborate with other mental health professionals to serve children and families who have more complex needs or co-occurring diagnoses. For instance, KCATC can work with therapists, counselors or psychiatrists who can address the emotional, social or medical issues that may affect the children’s progress. “If the CSF didn’t fund these collaborative approaches, there would be many barriers and many therapy hours that would go unreimbursed. We would spend a lot of time needing to be creative with fundraising and figuring out how to cover complex services like parent coaching and programming. Because of CSF funding, we are able to serve children and families who have these more complicated dynamics and more complicated therapy goals,” explained Hader.

Future Expansions—For the School and For Services

KCATC is looking forward to the finalization of a 1.2 million capital campaign, which will allow for renovations to update facilities, increase efficiencies and expand their ability to serve more children and families. It also plans to expand its Skills Based Treatment Certification services to other Jackson County service provider organizations, expand preschool services to families with complicated needs and develop onboard training programs to enhance the success of staff.

In addition to its ambitious plans, KCATC faces the challenge of navigating the administrative and clerical requirements for credentialing with Missouri Medicaid, a hurdle the organization aims to overcome soon. Hader shared that knowing that they have the support and guidance of the CSF has been heartening. Achieving this milestone holds the promise of broadening access to ABA therapy for families who may lack other options. 

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