University of North Texas alumna Kristin Farmer is giving back to her alma mater in the form of an autism center.
“Kristin has become a force in the world of autism,” UNT President V. Lane Rawlins said Saturday morning at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Kristin Farmer Autism Center.
The center, at 490 S. Interstate 35E, will provide educational services for elementary students with autism, as well as diagnostic testing, nutritional services, audiology screenings, counseling services and social skills training.
It also will provide a variety of therapies, including behavioral therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, and play, music and art therapy.
“All the services a parent could need are in one building,” said Kevin Callahan, executive director of the center.
Callahan said what makes a difference is the staff includes researchers; most autism centers aren’t attached to a university.
Autism research has been conducted at UNT since the 1970s, said professor Rick Smith, chairman of the behavioral analysis department.
“Autism research and intervention has taken great strides in the last two or three decades,” he said.
The earlier autism is diagnosed the better, Smith said, because it allows them to start using applied behavioral analysis to teach children social skills and language skills.
The 20,000-square-foot space includes four classrooms for individualized instruction, two diagnostic rooms for comprehensive assessments, nine therapy rooms, a training room for UNT students, a multipurpose room and a room for occupational and physical therapy.
In observation rooms, cameras will be used in place of two-way mirrors.
The building also has two apartments on the second floor for teaching students and clients life skills, such as making a bed or setting a table. They will provide a place to stay for families coming from out of town to use the center’s diagnostic services.
“It’s the result of many people’s work but, in a sense, one person’s vision,” Rawlins said to the more than 100 people in attendance for the ribbon-cutting.
Passion is a word many people at the event used to describe Farmer.
Years after studying special education with an emphasis in behavioral disorders and autism at UNT, Farmer founded Autism Comprehensive Educational Services (ACES), which serves 10 states, and she puts an emphasis on helping military families.
“I started it in a time when there weren’t a lot of public school systems that were utilizing a lot of the autism treatments,” she said.
When she was teaching a specialty class in Southern California, parents were looking for more intensive training, Farmer said.
She went from being a teacher to training teachers how to apply techniques in their classrooms.
Her interest in helping children with autism started with one boy named Johnny.
“I had a connection with him and was able to start teaching him how to imitate sounds and words,” Farmer said.
Finally, for the first time, he was able to tell his mother he loved her.
“I knew at that moment,” Farmer said. “It was an emotional moment for me. It made such a difference for that mom.”
Callahan, the center’s executive director, was one of Farmer’s professors while she was studying at UNT.
He was enthusiastic, and he loves what he does, which rubbed off on her, Farmer said.
“I’m grateful for his passion,” she said.
Farmer said she felt like she needed to give back to the university and encourage others to give back.
“I think it’s important to never forget where we came from,” she said.
Five years ago, Farmer called Callahan because she wanted ACES to make a bigger difference. The two had a similar vision, she said.
“Callahan located the building, and we provided some funds,” Farmer said, although she isn’t disclosing the amount of the funds donated. “It’s all kind of coming together now.”
The center will apply an interdisciplinary approach, using UNT’s College of Education, psychology department and speech and language department, and hopefully get other universities participating, Farmer said.
“It takes a lot to serve these kids, and there’s a lot of opportunity to bring people together,” she said. “We really can make a big difference.”
During the event, Farmer told the “starfish story” of an old man who was walking along the beach filled with starfish that had washed up after a storm. The old man came across a boy who was throwing a starfish back in the ocean, and he asked the boy why he was even bothering because he wasn’t saving enough to make a difference. As the boy threw another starfish in the ocean, he told the old man he made a difference for that one.
“We make a difference for one family at a time,” Farmer said.
Rawlins later built on that parable.
“The people we teach put an army of people on the beach,” he said.
RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center
* 490 S. Interstate 35E