New Dubuque facility for adults with autism could shape system - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

New Dubuque facility for adults with autism could shape system

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

On Wednesday, Iowa lawmakers passed a bill that would remake the state's Mental Health and Disability Services system. Currently, these services are provided county-by-county.

The bill would create a regional network, allowing counties to band together to provide services to people with mental illnesses or disabilities.

The bill's proponents say it would make the system more efficient and cost-effective and ensure uniform delivery of services to people anywhere in the state.

One of the core services the bill would ensure statewide is housing assistance for people with mental illnesses or disabilities.

When it comes to housing for adults with autism, some say the current system is lacking.

Marilyn Althoff is executive director of Hills and Dales, a Dubuque organization that serves people with disabilities. She said there's a shortage of places in Iowa for adults with autism.

"It's an intensive kind of program that requires that trained person, and right now, that's what's lacking in the system," Althoff said.

Alyson Beytien knows firsthand the struggle of finding nearby care for a loved one with autism. She and her husband Craig have three children, all of whom are on the autism spectrum. Their youngest son, 18-year-old Zach, however, has some extra needs.

"He has significant autism, so he's nonverbal, lot of anxiety about social interaction, and that has ended up exhibiting itself in a lot of significant aggression," Alyson Beytien said, who is also an autism consultant. "We were finding that within our own home we were a little unsafe as he started to get bigger and bigger," she said.

The Beytiens put Zach in a facility in La Crosse, Wis., two and a half hours away from their Dubuque home. As Zach faced adulthood, the family had no options to move him any closer to home.

"When we were contemplating Zach come back because he was turning 18, nowhere in Iowa, no agency, nothing would accept him," Beytien said.

That family is not alone. Many people are left with no choices but to put their adult loved one with autism in a facility far away.

"You know, this is where their family is. This is where their lives are," Althoff said.

The winds of change, however, are blowing. Hills and Dales is spearheading a pilot program.

In last year's legislative session, lawmakers from the Dubuque area helped secure a $100,000 supporting grant from the Iowa Department of Human Services. That, plus a $20,000 grant from the Dubuque Racing Association and private fundraising paid for a house in Dubuque, which cost about $175,000. Hills and Dales is renovating it, turning it into a facility for adults with autism.

"When our team walked into this home, we knew this was it," Althoff said.

The renovation process has been a significant one, at nearly $60,000 to $65,000.

"Everything from the lighting to the wall color to everything else is intended to reduce anxiety," Beytien said.

Starting as soon as June, the house will become home to four young men with autism, whose families are close to the Dubuque area, and an around-the-clock staff.

"Often times, the funding isn't in place to support the high level of need for the individual, so with the pilot program that the Department of Human Services has been supportive of, of Hills and Dales developing, is allowing us the funding, allowing us the supports, giving us the resources to create a program where people can live in the community," Althoff said.

Zach Beytien is one of the four future residents. He now lives in a facility in Woodward, Iowa, more than 200 miles from his family.

"To be able to have him right here in our community is a huge deal for us as a family," Alyson Beytien said.

This is no small issue. The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control show one in every 88 kids has some form of autism, as of 2008.

"We're all pretty much tuned into it as a childhood issue, and a lot of the kids are becoming adults now, so we have to respond and assure that we have the appropriate services in place," Althoff said.

Some of those appropriate services include preparing medical, law enforcement and emergency services agencies with a plan of action in the case of an incident at the home.

"We are really working hard so that we don't have to take the person to a hospital in the midst of crisis, we don't have to find another placement, that we can work with the crisis right within the house and pull the people that are needed to help, to the home as opposed to taking the person to them," Beytien said.

If the home works, with its built-in supports and proximity to family, it could become the first of many statewide, so helping a loved one with autism doesn't have to mean sending him or her away from home.

"We have a waiting list of families already that are hoping that this is successful and that we can open another home," Althoff said.

If Governor Branstad signs the bill, the Mental Health and Disability Services' new regionalized system would go into effect in FY 2014.

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