The HEARTism Community Center in Corvallis is now a Certified Autism Center, designated by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), to help the center educate and help socialize children with special needs through the exploration of the arts, music, sensory movement and life.
HEARTism Director and Founder Jessica Fitzpatrick said she is excited to be the first, and currently the only, Certified Autism Center in Montana.
“Our certified professionals and volunteers are implementing their newly acquired techniques and skillset to help each child find success,” Fitzpatrick said. “These trainings and certifications are an important step for HEARTism and our community.”
At HCC, 10 volunteers and two professionals took the online training and testing for certification. The Certified Autism Specialist Training was 14 hours online followed by testing.
“It is for professionals, meaning they want people with a Master’s Degree,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t have a Masters but I do have a Bachelor’s and 10-years’ experience so they allowed me to certify.”
Fitzpatrick and a music therapist are the two HCC certified professionals.
Fitzpatrick said she learned more from the certification training than she expected.
“One of the chapters was on Universal Design Learning and that is specifically teaching to the way the child learns,” she said. “It is up to the teacher to figure out how that child learns then teach in that way. I think that is such a great thing, we need to do that everywhere.”
Fitzpatrick said a big part of the training speaks to the difference between a center and outdoor event that is “sensory friendly” verses “sensory safe.”
Board member Jennifer Wiezel took the certification process and said it was humbling.
“I found it to be enlightening and the quiz was challenging,” she said. “The process really emphasized the sensory sensitivity of our children who we are working with. It also taught that we need to be more sensitive of what is going on with each of our children all the time.”
Wiezel said it is important for caregivers to become more aware of children and their changes in sensitivity, aware of noises that the child is hearing or the child’s response to a touch by someone during play.
HEARTism plans to secure funding for two more certified professionals.
“We are hoping for funding for an afterschool program next year, so we’d hire an afterschool teacher.” Fitzpatrick said. “We are also hoping to add mental health services here as support services for parents, rather than therapy for the children. That support piece is huge,”
During COVID-19 the HCC has shifted their focus from large group/community events to one-on-one therapy services and has partnered with Moving Mountains Therapy in Missoula.
Fitzpatrick said highly skilled pediatric occupational and physical therapists are willing to drive down the valley to work with families and children at HEARTism, saving parents a weekly trip to Missoula.
A family survey has been helpful for HCC to redesign classes to be held outdoors with small groups or via Zoom.
“The response that we got was overwhelming that parents feel comfortable in getting together in small groups while still social distancing for doing things like art, music, outdoor field trips, park play and park camp,” Fitzpatrick said.
She said families with an autism member have struggled during the time of social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. She said children with autism often have a compromised immune systems, are not able to understanding the reasoning behind not seeing their friends and may experience sensory overloads when asked to wear a mask.
HEARTism Board President Erin Clark said she feel that families with special needs are more secluded than the rest of the community during COVID.
“It really takes a lot of thought on our part as a center to make sure activities are available in a really, really safe way,” Clark said.
Wiezel said planning HCC activities is difficult right now.
“As the COVID-19 count changes and Montana has spiked we are on short term planning and revising,” she said. “As people we know or relatives end up with corona people are going to be cautious to have their kids come.”
Fitzpatrick said HCC is extra careful.
“We don’t want to endanger anyone but especially not our precious kiddos,” she said. “We’re trying to plan summer activities and we are navigating all the guidelines, but as numbers rise, we’re asking ‘what can we do?’ and ‘what can we do to best support the families?”
HCC also has an AmeriCorps member who can work one-on-one in the center or go to homes.
“We haven’t checked to see what parents would like,” Wiezel said. “Currently, she is doing a book writing project with a child.”
In addition to Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and online Musical Therapy, HCC has a volunteer Mental Health Professional willing to work with patients already established with Medicaid and insurance.
“We can offer a portion of the mental health services that we are wanting,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ll continue offering Musical Therapy online weekly all summer, we got funding for that.”
Another board member is Megan Oldenstadt and the grant writer working to find mental health funding is Jeanine New who has contributed many in-kind hours.
Wiezel said that with a high number of special needs families in the Bitterroot Valley, specifically with autism, outreach is really important.
“We need to let families know that we’re here, what we’re doing and that we want to help,” Wiezel said. “Now that we’re certified we’re hoping that will entice more families to reach out.“
Fitzpatrick said more community involvement would be helpful for HCC.
“We need people willing to help who want to come in and help one-on-one, we need technical support and we need a fund specifically for technology because we have families without devices to connect to the internet,” she said. “We’re offering Zoom programming every week but have families unable to watch that. It would make a significant impact on these families without technology.”
HCC appreciates the support that already comes from the community including breweries that host fundraising events, professional artist Steve Wilson for coming to paint with the children, the music therapist and a local drummer who provides drums and free drumming lessons.
Wiezel said that with HCC completing the Autism and Sensory Awareness Training and receiving certification through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards out of Florida, “it feels like the certification will take us to another level of community involvement and more families participating.”
Fitzpatrick said she hopes the certification gives HCC access to a higher level of funding.
“We’re still trying to keep the doors open,” she said. “We’re still trying to cover operation expenses. It would be great to get a big grant and just be able to focus on the programming not the fundraising.”
Some additional donated items would assist the program this summer: pop-up canvas tents, folding chairs, TV-trays, masks or bandanas, funding for technology assistant and a fund to help families get technology.
IBCCES Board Chairman Myron Pincomb said specialized training and certification are needed so professionals who are working with individuals on the spectrum can help them flourish and thrive.
“We’re excited that HEARTism has taken the steps to be a leader in their area,” Pincomb said.
HCC is a project of Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development for more information email Fitzpatrick at Heartism406@gmail.com.
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