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We’re here to help.

Our compassionate and knowledgeable team is here to address your unique needs and provide the best possible care for your child’s neurodevelopmental journey.

Learn more

Teaching for a stronger community.

We are here to equip learners with the essentials skills needed to create positive change in the lives of people with developmental differences.

Learn more

Researching for a better tomorrow.

Our goal is to unlock discoveries that will revolutionize the lives of individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental diagnoses.

Learn more

Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopment

205 Portland Street, Columbia, MO 65211


January 6, 2016

Columbia takes off as a progressive city that understands autism

By Emily Morrison

From Columbia Missourian, Jan. 6, 2016

COLUMBIA — Karen O’Connor remembers why she came to Columbia. Almost a decade later, she feels vindicated.

O’Connor, now a member of the training and outreach division at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at MU, moved to mid-Missouri from Cleveland in 2006. She wanted a place where she could teach and belong to a community that specialized in helping with disabilities.

As others have done in recent years, O’Connor found Columbia to be the place for her. While the city provides many resources for individuals with disabilities, its growth as an autism-friendly community has been particularly evident.

“I don’t think there are many places out there that can provide as much as Columbia can when it comes to our efforts and what we can offer,” O’Connor said. “There are so many more opportunities and ways people with autism can get the help they need.”

Although a number of factors have led to Columbia’s newfound status as a prominent autism community, three general themes tie everything together: the Thompson Center, new business practices that accommodate people with autism and the city’s overall appeal.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder of which understanding is still new and public perception hasn’t yet developed into fully nuanced opinion. The disorder is characterized by compulsive behavioral patterns and difficulties with social interactions; those who have it typically display intense passions in specific interest areas.

In 2014, approximately one in 68 Americans fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. That spectrum works on a scale that ranges from severe autism on one end to high-functioning conditions such as Asperger Syndrome on the other.

Regardless of where an individual with autism appears on the spectrum, anyone who does is considered to have an autism spectrum disorder.

Like most widespread conditions or diseases, the public is aware of autism. They have a general idea of what it is, and they know people with autism or autism spectrum disorders need assistance and are a growing voice.

They don’t, however, always know how to provide assistance to those who need it.

“There’s been some hesitance in the past because people don’t know what they can do to help others,” said Anna Laakman, a team member of the Thompson Center’s training core and outreach division.

“That’s where we’ve come in. … We want to help Columbia and Mizzou become places people turn to and can look to for the resources they need.”

Thompson Center: Columbia’s autism hub

Despite its enlightened reputation, Columbia wasn’t particularly involved in autism research and development until 2005. Then, a gift from MU graduates Bill and Nancy Thompson helped establish the Thompson Center.

The center’s mission is to “improve the lives of individuals and families affected by autism and neurodevelopmental disorders through world class programs that integrate research, clinical service delivery, education and public policy.”

Its existence has been a starting point for research and autism-related programs that have helped Columbia accommodate those affected by the disorder on a daily basis.

“It all starts with research,” Laakman said. “So many people think of autism as this scary thing that we don’t know much about yet.

“Making a community better for those with autism will always be an important goal, but we also want to find out more about how autism affects the brain and development.”

Close affiliation with a well-funded research university has helped the Thompson Center. In addition to the center’s own staff and faculty members, it also has a wide variety of university professors as collaborators.

For example, Thompson Center staff member Judith Miles and biological engineering professor Gang Yao have been working for years with children to track eye pupil movement — individuals whose pupils take longer to react to specifically designed flashing lights are more likely to exhibit autistic tendencies.

Through his professional expertise, Yao recently developed a device that can track eye movement in ways that don’t require children to sit still throughout the testing.

Conducting such research, however, comes down to more than spending money and developing research strategies or equipment. It also requires a staff that can find willing children to participate in such research efforts, and that can be a difficult subject for parents.

“It’s the question of how we can get people to believe in what we’re doing,” Laakman said. “Some parents don’t know much about autism, so how do you come across them and say, ‘Hey, we think it would be beneficial if we tested your son or daughter?’

“That’s not always an easy sell, but the fact we’re able to do it says a lot about Columbia and the staff we have (at the Thompson Center).”

Although those on the spectrum face lifelong battles with social skills and other difficulties, being able to diagnose it at a young age can help them develop the proper skills.

For O’Connor, Columbia is the ideal place to do so. She knows countless families who have moved to the city from near and far, many citing the Thompson Center’s reputation for working with and accommodating children.

“When you’re dealing with any disability, that’s (children) often going to be what you focus on most,” O’Connor said. “Autism is no different. If you can identify and really get a plan to how you approach the problem, it makes the process so much easier.”

Autism and Columbia’s business environment

One of the Thompson Center’s newer initiatives trains local businesses to accommodate those on the spectrum. In July, the center took a big step when it launched its Autism Friendly Business program. Four businesses have completed the program’s training — MU Athletics Department , KCOU, Focus on Health Chiropractic and The Broadway Hotel.

For businesses, autism-friendly practices train employees to help patrons with autism by creating courses of action for various situations. Although O’Connor and Laakman, both involved in training and outreach, believe such efforts have been successful, they know the program still a work in progress.

“As time goes on, you’re probably going to see more demand for this type of training,” O’Connor said. “We’ll also have to take a look at the methods we use as we learn more about autism.”

The Broadway, a DoubleTree hotel owned by Hilton downtown, completed the training in October. Although Chesterfield Hotels, its parent chain, owns other hotels throughout Missouri, it chose Columbia as an autism-friendly location because of medical opportunities and progressive approaches.

“It’s a city that really keeps up from a medical and disability standpoint,” Chesterfield Hotels General Manager Bob McDonald said. “There are so many hospitals and people here who can give you the opportunities you need to this.

“It’s also a community that’s forgiving and gravitates toward sensible people, which is what you need to make this work.”

Under the Thompson Center’s training guidelines, The Broadway has taught its staff members to accommodate people with autism and their families. This includes suggesting locations for visitors who are unfamiliar with the city or looking for specific social environments.

Employees know that certain rooms and areas throughout the hotel are better suited to meet the needs of those with autism. Noise might be an issue, for example.

“If a parent says they have a child with autism that could be at risk of a tantrum or might be uncomfortable, the staff is able to accommodate and suggest a different room,” McDonald said.

In hotels, where it’s easy to find privacy and develop a staff that can help people seeking a particular environment, the task may not be difficult. In larger environments, such as sports venues, for example, that’s not necessarily the case. Football and basketball games have thousands of people concentrated in a large, rowdy crowd, a setting where people on the spectrum may not feel comfortable.

In early October, the athletics program at MU announced a business partnership with the Thompson Center to bring autism-friendly practices to Mizzou Arena for the 2015-16 men’s and women’s basketball seasons.

The objective is to prepare those with autism for the arena’s atmosphere on game days. As does The Broadway, the arena offers tote bags to help those with autism feel more comfortable. Among the items are earbuds and a three-ring booklet that explains where to go for assistance, what happens during games and when to expect loud noises.

“There’s a lot that can catch people by surprise at a basketball game, and our goal is to make sure that nobody with autism feels like they’re discriminated against for any reason,” MU Associate Director of Event Management Krissy Ellis said.

“If we can take places with so much commotion and turn them into positive places for people with autism, there’s really no place that can’t be done.”

That change is something many autism awareness activists hope to bring to other businesses in Columbia. Al Eberhard, a former Missouri basketball player who is now on the Thompson Center Foundation Board, said the center hopes to engage more local businesses.

“When a place or atmosphere or something else you love takes on added meaning like that, it’s special,” Eberhard said. “Everyone should be able to enjoy those games, but that’s harder for people with autism sometimes. This can really be the start of something.”

An aware and growing community

Other factors have helped Columbia become a haven for those on the spectrum. The Columbia Public Schools has taken a step forward, for example, by giving its students with autism a better chance to succeed.

Lukin Murphy, an autism support specialist for Columbia Public Schools, said the district has more than 100 students with autism. The district offers classrooms designed for middle-school students who have autism-related communicative skills and students who have a combination of autism and other learning disabilities.

“I’ve done autism work in tons of different cities, five different states and even internationally in India and Bulgaria, and none of them compare to here,” Murphy said. “In terms of education, this is the best and most well-rounded support system I’ve been around.”

Elsewhere, the city’s demographic composition has also played a major role in developing its newfound reputation as an autism-friendly community. With at least 35,000 college students  living in the community, Columbia’s median age (27.2 years) is nearly 11 years younger than the state average (38.1 years).

Since many autism awareness efforts and cultural advances have taken place within the past 15 years or so, younger generations are growing up with a stronger grasp of what autism is and what they can do to support those on the spectrum.

“I think college students and other young people, they’re really learning to understand things more and be more open about them,” Laakman said. “That’s not only true with autism, but it’s also true with depression and mental illness. It’s a benefit that comes with being in a place where people are younger.”

One of the next frontiers in Columbia’s quest for an autism-friendly atmosphere could be the city’s involvement.

Although O’Connor said Columbia has worked well with organizations such as Special Olympics and has emphasized autism programs through Boone County’s family resources and case management opportunities, she feels more can be done to help the city accommodate those on the spectrum.

“That’s probably our next step, it’s working with the city closer and helping Columbia to become even more inclusive than it already is,” O’Connor said. “We’re learning more and more about autism every day, and we owe it to people with autism to help them in any way we can.”