By Jeong Park
A new $9.5 million autism center opening this month at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County will allow kids easily unsettled by new places to remain in its familiar, calming environment while their doctors come to them.
Said to be the first of its kind in the area, the Thompson Autism Center will offer a wide range of programs, from diagnosis to counseling, for children and their families. A few blocks away from the hospital’s main campus in Orange, it opens to existing CHOC patients in February and to new patients in March.
“To have an entire toolbox to give to our families is an unbelievable burden reliever,” said Dr. Tom Megerian, CHOC neurologist and director of the autism center. “They feel supported.”
Every inch of the center is designed to support children with autism and their families, Megerian said, but most unique is two clinics where a patient can be seen in the one setting by their various specialists, from psychologists to gastroenterologists, who will also have a place to gather and discuss care and issues.
Providing care for them until now has been fragmented, forcing families to drive miles between locations which presents complications for the children, who often have meltdowns and struggle to settle down in unfamiliar spaces because of their autism, Megerian said.
About 2,000 CHOC patients on the autism spectrum disorders are also dealing with other medical conditions, such as epilepsy and mood disorders.
Take even a simple dentistry procedure. Sitting in a stiff exam chair and hearing the wheezing drills for the first time can be unnerving for anyone, but especially for a child with autism who is very sensitive to lights and sounds.
In the Thompson Autism Center, children will be able to sit in an exam room and be trained step-by-step: From sitting still in a chair to getting used to the sound of drills. Later they can have a procedure in that exact same room.
“Children will have the time to get used to what it will be like,” Megerian said.
Megerian said the center’s lead architect has a son diagnosed with autism and leaned on his own experience in creating the designs.
“At every stage, he always talked about what would be soothing to his son,” Megerian said.
Indirect lighting, calm colors and images of nature fill the two-story, 20,000-square-foot building. There are circular nooks in the walls where children can sit to take a personal break.
The building’s artwork features animals or children always with someone else – a visual cue for patients about what it is like to have a social connection, Megerian said.
Two “magic windows,” which are monitors donated by The Walt Disney Company, show scenes from the wild and the media company’s popular animations such as “Zootopia.”
A $10 million donation from the Newport Beach-based Thompson Family Foundation has helped finance the center and its ongoing operation.
All of this, Megerian said, is a way for patients and their families alike to feel like they are supported. And even for autistic children who don’t have other medical conditions, the center will have plenty to offer.
For children who haven’t been responding to their treatment, the center’s staff will be able to observe their behavior and offer suggestions to parents, teachers and social workers, said Dr. Eric Ishijima, a behavior analyst at the center.
“This is a partnership with current service providers, not a competition,” Ishijima said.
The center and its staff will also provide “a safety net” for caretakers, Megerian said. More veteran caregivers, or “parent navigators,” will be on hand to guide the parents and siblings of patients.
For young adults who have aged out of the school system, the center will be able to help them secure vocational training or assisted living to be more independent.
Researchers will be welcomed to study how to best treat and manage autism, Megerian said.
“There’s a lot packed in this small building,” he said. “Now, you get a place that’s out there to help you, and that’s life-changing.”