News Article Details

Autism center prepares to launch BLAST program

Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal - 12/8/2018

Dec. 08--TUPELO -- The Autism Center of North Mississippi is ready to blast into the new year.

The Tupelo center has a new clinical director and is preparing to expand services for children 10 and up.

"All the stars have aligned," said Brittany Cuevas, executive director.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Sheila Williamson brings a wealth of experience as the center's new clinical director, Cuevas said. Williamson is also a board certified behavior analyst and sits on the Mississippi licensure board for applied behavioral analysts.

"She is really helping us expand our vision," Cuevas said.

With help from a grant through the Appalachian Regional Commission, the center will launch the BLAST program to help those 10 and up develop social skills and pre-vocational skills in 2019.

"We've always wanted to start seeing older individuals with autism," Cuevas said.

Renovations have begun on space next door to the current center to create space that will include a kitchen, mock office, a mini-Kroger and coffee shop so the participants can practice life skills.

"Regardless of where they are on the spectrum, we're providing the skill set to function as independently as possible," Williamson said.

For children at the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, the groups can focus on social skills and cues that can help them develop meaningful relationships. For children with more severe impairment, it may be simple skills that allow them to be safe at home alone.

Donors, including Acco, Shepherd's Hands, Toyota and His Way, have covered most of the 30 percent match required as part of the ARC grant. The Carpenter Foundation is helping with the first year of rent for the expanded space next door to the current center.

The center is going through its waiting list of 200 children to update who still needs services and who would be appropriate for the new BLAST program.

The center is aiming to fire up the BLAST program in February, Cuevas said. The community can assist with monetary donations to help finish off the match. Starting in January, the center will also be ready to accept kitchen utensils, pots, pans, desks, office chairs to help furnish the space. They will also need clean, empty food boxes and food containers to stock their mock grocery store.

History of helping

Williamson grew up in New Jersey but she came to the University of Mississippi to earn her doctorate in psychology.

"That was 30 years ago and we never left," Williamson said, who recently moved to Belden with her husband Michael.

She first worked with children with autism as a technician at Rutgers University autism program. She went on to intern with the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She has worked with Mississippi schools and the Regional Center in Oxford. Seven years ago, she started Integrated Health in Southaven.

"My goal is to support families in making their kids indistinguishable from their peers with the right supports in place," Wiliamson said.

Williamson joined the autism center staff part time in October and will be in Tupelo full time Dec. 17.

"One of the things that inspired me (to join the Autism Center staff) was the chance to work with a group of people who want to grow," Williamson said.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

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(c)2018 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.)

Visit the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.) at www.djournal.com

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