Missouri State University in West Plains has broken ground on a future autism center to help students with autism transition to college.  Dennis Lancaster, the institution’s chancellor, said that the newly named TJ Swift House ASCEND Program got its start from a student with autism struggling on his first day on campus.

“I was what was keeping him from getting closer to the building,” Lancaster said. “I was blocking that front door to his first college class. I was the problem. So, I moved off to the other side of the entrance area and this time he approached the door and went in. Later, I learned the young man was autistic, and for whatever reason with all the normal first day butterflies, coupled with his unique challenges caused by his autism, he saw me as an obstacle.”

The Missouri Legislature approved and Gov. Mike Parson signed $7.5 million in funding for the future Center for Autism and Neurodiversity. Parson, who was in attendance, for the groundbreaking, emphasized the significance of this program with a personal example with a member of his family.

“It had to do with a drive-in window, a drive-in order at fast food,” Parson said. “Our little niece was able to say what she wanted. Those things just don’t come by herself. It’s because we had found out a place to go for her to take her for services and to help her do that, but just being able to do that is a big thing.”

Chancellor Lancaster cited the growing need for this kind of program from a Missouri Department of Mental Health study.

“Missouri’s prevalence rate of school age children with autism was about 1 in 150 children,” he said. “In just 18 years, the prevalence rate increased by roughly 60% to 1 in 71. School counselors and administrators have told me that they believe the prevalence rate in our region is much higher than that. In other words, the need for our program in this facility is only going to become greater in the years to come.”

The building, which will be about 9,300 square feet, includes indirect lighting; different textures on carpet, walls, and furniture; sound absorbing materials; and break out rooms to calm over-stimulation.

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Copyright 2023, Missourinet.

Nate Hudson, of Missourinet affiliate KWPM in West Plains, contributed to this story.