One in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. There are few resources available in the state of Iowa for families to get help for their children on the autism spectrum. A Northwestern alum is working to change that.
Shawn Kolb (Thoma ‘91) graduated from NW with a degree in psychology and a minor in mathematics. Shortly after, she started her career working with individuals with special healthcare needs.
Kolb spent most of her career working with adults with disabilities. Throughout that time, she worked with many adults with ASD. She found the behaviors of people on the autism spectrum and the way their minds worked intriguing.
“I loved working with adults but also knew that early intervention was critical for children with autism,” Kolb said. “The idea of being able to have a long-lasting impact on a child’s life is exciting to me.”
In November of 2014, Kolb started working at ChildServe, a large nonprofit organization in the Des Moines area that helps children with special healthcare needs. She entered the role of autism program manager in hopes of starting a brand new day health program for children with ASD.
The goal of the Autism Day Health Program, started in February of 2015, was to be a place where the services across ChildServe collaborated with each other in the hopes of getting the best possible outcomes for children with autism.
The start of the program did not come without challenges.
“The Autism Day Health Program is really one-of-a-kind. There is nothing like it in the state of Iowa, so there was nothing to model it from,” Kolb said, “I was able to get some ideas from the Medical Day Health Program but had to figure out a lot along the way.”
Another challenge Kolb faced was identifying what the program really was.
“It is not a daycare, not a preschool and not therapy; however, it is really a blend of all those things,” Kolb said.
While children are in the program, they receive therapy services: speech, occupational therapy, feeding and more. The children’s therapists create goals that the staff in the classrooms help them complete throughout the day Usually, this includes three to four goals from each discipline. Evidenced-based curriculum developed specifically for preschoolers with autism is also utilized. The curriculum focuses on language skills, functional routines and pre-academic skills along with play and social skills.
The Autism Day Health Program has been extremely successful. In 2015, it started in one room with six children and is currently expanding for the fourth time since the start of the program. There will be five rooms in three locations, serving 50 children. In 2018, the program expanded to ChildServe’s location in Ames and is now able to serve children in that area.
The day health program has impacted children and families in positive ways. Kolb says, “One of the best stories is of a child who started with us with limited verbal skills and no play skills. When he ‘graduated’ and started kindergarten, he was able to express his wants and needs and play appropriately with his peers.”
A benefit for families is that the program allows the parents to work during the day. Most of the children in the program would not be successful in a typical childcare setting. The Autism Day Health Program is able to provide a safe, educational setting for children, which allows parents the ability to work.
Kolb says “the impact on the kids and their families” is the most rewarding part of her job. Another aspect of her role as Autism Program Manager is helping with a parent training program. Kolb recalls talking with a father after one of the first classes.
“He said he was so grateful for the opportunity to go through the class because he learned how to play with his son,” Kolb said. “Before the class, his son only wanted to spin or run around. The class taught the dad techniques to engage his son so they could play.”
Kolb is currently working on getting her master’s degree in applied behavior analysis and will graduate this May. After getting her degree and passing an exam, she will be a board-certified Behavior Analyst and will be able to provide behavior analytic services in a variety of settings including clinics, in-home and schools.
Kolb currently lives in Urbandale, Iowa with her husband, Scott and their daughter, Emma and has a daughter, Sydney, who is currently a junior at NW.