Tracy Regard (left) and Jessica Dekle, co-founders of Beyond A Spectrum autism treatment center, have been working for over a year to get everything ready to open their Marksville center in September. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Autism in Avoyelles: ‘Beyond A Spectrum’ to open in September

Will use therapies, research to battle autism

{Editor’s Note: Autism is a growing concern throughout the nation. There is one existing treatment center in the parish and two proposed centers expected to open later this year. This article is the second in a series.}

Every child with autism is different and not every treatment is right for every child.

With that in mind, Tracy Regard and Jessica Dekle set out to open an autism treatment center “that looks at the whole child.”

The two women have been working in the field of mental health treatment for many years with Rehabilitation Services of Louisiana. For the past several years they have discussed opening their own center.

They began that process in earnest over a year ago. That hard work will pay off when “Beyond A Spectrum” opens on Sept. 4, next to the Union Bank community hall and across the street from the Chamber of Commerce office on North Main Street in Marksville.

The center’s name refers to “the spectrum” of autistic disorders, which range from the high-functioning formerly called Asperger’s Syndrome to the profound who are non-verbal and sometimes self-harming.

Regard, who lives in Marksville with husband Stu Regard, is a licensed clinical social worker. She is certified to do assessments of children to determine if they are “on the spectrum” of autism. She is also accredited to conduct surveys of rehabilitation facilities.

Dekle and her husband Jake live in Hessmer. She will be more involved in the business end of the business as director of human resources and administration.

‘SOFT OPENING’

“We will have a ‘soft opening’ on Sept. 4,” Regard said. “By that, I mean we will only be doing assessments. We will begin treatment therapies soon after.”

The company is expecting to receive its certification as a non-profit agency from the IRS by Sept. 1.

Regard said treatment of autism begins by “changing the way we talk about it. We do not say ‘an autistic child,’ but rather ‘a child with autism.’

“Autism is part of the child, but it should not define who he is.”

Regard said there is definitely a need for services to treat autism in this area.

“National statistics show one out of 59 children have some form of autism,” she said. “In Avoyelles, I believe it is under-diagnosed and under-served.”

Regard said she recently did three assessments of children in this parish who had been denied services at another treatment center because they have autism.

“Those were three individual appointments,” she said. “That shows the need for additional treatment services here for children with autism.”

She said that in her previous position she came across parents who were driving from the Marksville/Effie area of the parish to receive services at Care TEC in Bunkie or going even farther to Alexandria or Lafayette.

Beyond A Spectrum will include speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavior analysis therapy, music therapy, pet therapy and child/parent psychotherapy.

Regard is particularly excited about the family therapy.

It has been said, and is true in many ways, that when one member of a family has autism the entire family has autism.

The Child/Parent Psycho-therapy (CPP) is for children ages 0-5 who have experienced a traumatic event and have developed attachment issues with their family.

“We had many children who went through Katrina that received this kind of therapy,” Regard said.

In addition to working with the child, it also teaches parents the skills they need to connect with their child again.

Regard said Medicaid and health insurance companies will pay for assessments and for applied behavior analysis therapy, but not for other therapies that may be needed. Those would have to be paid for by the patients’ families.

In an effort to keep costs as low as possible, Beyond A Spectrum will be seeking research grants to supplement the payments for services.

RESEARCH-BASED

“We hope to do a lot of research on autism here,” Regard said. “This will be a research-based facility. There will be two interns -- one from Louisiana College and one from LSUA -- conducting studies when we open.”

The two women were adamant that they wanted to operate a non-profit, not a for-profit, center. More important than that is their wish for their young clients.

“I want to be sure the child gets the treatment he came here fore,” Dekle said.

“I want the children to be happy to come here,” Regard said. “It will be hard work, but I want them to be able to have fun and enjoy being here.”

To date, all of the costs for selecting a site, furnishing the office, buying supplies and equipment, etc. “has come out of our pockets,” Dekle said.

“We literally took a leap of faith,” Regard said. “Sometimes it feels like that leap is off a cliff -- especially when we look at the bills,” she added with a laugh.

Dekle and Regard both said they are not worried about their venture and believe it is meant to be.

“It’s kind of like Field of Dreams,” Dekle said, “when the main character was told, ‘Build it and they will come.’ That’s how we feel about this. We know that when we open, there will be children who need the services that will be offered here.”

‘WHEN GOD KNOCKS’

“When God knocks on the door with an opportunity for you to serve and you ignore Him, be prepared for Him to keep knocking,” Regard said.

While she is proud of her past work in the area of helping people struggling with autism and mental health issues, “this will give us a bigger purpose in this community.”

The forces behind Beyond A Spectrum have also been developing community partnerships.

Dekle said their landlord, Brent Scallan “has been a blessing from God. He is the most kind-hearted person I know.”

Scallan is renting the building at a reasonable cost and has done a lot of work to make the site suit the center’s needs.

“A lot of landlords might do the work requested, but they would increase the rent to get their money back,” Dekle said. “He has done a lot of work for us for what is definitely a discounted rent.”

The center’s first fundraiser will be Oct. 6, when it will partner with Avoyelles Animal Welfare Society in Cottonport.

“Animals play a big part in therapy for children with autism,” Regard said.

They have also networked with mental health consultant Joy Kelleher of Carter-Brown in the United Kingdom. She will be conducting a continuing education conference on Nov. 15 about human trafficking and will be donating all proceeds to Beyond A Spectrum.

“The disabled are often targeted by traffickers because they are more defenseless,” Regard noted.

The center’s first major event will be a week-long “I Can Bike” camp that will teach children with autism how to ride a bike.

The two instructors who will conduct the camp have an 80-85 percent success rate.

“We hope to accommodate 40 children,” Regard said. “We are seeking businesses as sponsors to enable us to offer scholarships to children who cannot afford the camp fee.

A date for the camp has not been set at this time.

There is a possibility of an experienced volunteer who may be willing to teach Beyond A Spectrum clients to swim, Regard said.

While the effort has required more than a fair amount of work, money and “networking, a lot of networking” to get ready for “opening day,” Regard and Dekle said they have enjoyed the fight and are looking forward to serving those in need of the services they will provide at Beyond A Spectrum.

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