Raising a child with autism is difficult, often requiring hours of daily dedication and the shuttling between doctors, educators and other care providers. Doing it somewhere with no dedicated center for autism diagnosis, treatment and coping services is even worse.
Thanks to the UNLV Medicine Ackerman Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Solutions families living in the Las Vegas Valley are now able to come to one physical place to address all their specific needs. The center is a joint creation of the new UNLV School of Medicine and the Grant a Gift Autism Foundation,
“To our knowledge, it’s the first center in Nevada to combine all three legs of the autism support stool — diagnostics, research and support — in one building at one time,” said the center’s namesake, Gary Ackerman, a Grant a Gift Autism Foundation board member who contributed generously to open the center.
“To correctly diagnose and treat the disorder, you need a neuropsychologist, a neuropsychiatrist, development pediatrician and, in some cases, you need a geneticist — the research component to help discover why your child’s brain operates the way it does,” said Ackerman. “And if you’re in a community that does have the necessary support, they’re typically completely independent people, with offices many miles or even cities apart, who may or may not know each other.”
In 1991, Gary Ackerman’s son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Since Las Vegas lacked a board-certified neuropsychologist at the time, Ackerman and his wife had to bring eight-year-old Andrew to UCLA, where they were given training in how to raise him with no outside specialty care.
“We were told that we’d have to do it completely by ourselves,” Ackerman says.
For Andrew, fortunately, that was enough. He is now 32, lives independently, and works in the shipping and receiving department at his dad’s car dealership, Gaudin Motor Co.
“He has exceeded doctors’ expectations,” Ackerman says. “But if there was a center like this back then, we wouldn’t have had to spend so many empty years literally wandering around in the dark, hoping we were doing the right thing for our child.”
Autism affects one in every 68 children, including one in every 42 boys. In Clark County alone, it affects more than 4,750 young people. It affects more children than diabetes, AIDS, and cancer combined. While diagnoses of the developmental disorder are growing at a fast rate in the U.S., according to Grant a Gift, it’s the least-funded for research, treatment and education. The Grant a Gift Autism Foundation was created in 2009 by former banking executive Lynda Tache. It has grown in seven short years and is now the partner of the UNLV School of Medicine in creating the new center.
The Ackerman Autism Center runs the autism support gamut from developmental pediatrics to behavioral health, developmental psychology, neurology, and genetics. It also employs specially trained community health workers as case managers, reducing the barriers to care by setting families up with transportation, health insurance, social services and the answers to any question they might have about obtaining health care.
“We provide a comprehensive support program for our families from initial contact through navigating the needed services within our center and in the community,” said Dr. Julie F. Beasley, who supervises the center’s clinical activity and provides her own unique specialty: neuropsychological assessments for infants through young adults.
“All of us who have come together to work here believe in the need for our families to have one place to go for good diagnostic, therapeutic care that is affordable and sustainable,” Beasley said.
The center also provides parenting and sibling classes on dealing with spectrum disorders. Because the entire family is affected when a child is diagnosed, no solution is adequate unless it’s family-centered, Beasley said.
The center serves as ideal infrastructure model for the UNLV School of Medicine, which will improve not only the university but also the economy and health care of Las Vegas.
“Comprehensive care models like this are something our community desperately needs,” said Dr. Barbara Atkinson, founding dean of the medical school. “I’ve heard so many stories about families here who had to leave the city to access specialists, and, when they don’t have the financial means to do so, they can suffer on long wait lists. The School of Medicine aims to fix that in our community no matter the specialty.”
Ackerman added, “I’ve spent my entire life in Las Vegas and I just want to see it become a better place to live. Soon enough, thanks to the UNLV School of Medicine, no one will ever have to leave Las Vegas to seek any kind of quality specialty care, and that’s good for everyone.”
The UNLV Medicine Ackerman Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Solutions is located at 630 S. Rancho Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89106; (702) 998-9505.