EAST HARLEM — An internationally recognized autism treatment center is opening its first office in the city this September, thanks to one dedicated Manhattan father.
When Robert Epner's 14-year-old son David Arthur was diagnosed with autism he looked for the best care he could find.
That's when he found out about the Center of Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), a 24-year-old agency with 29 treatment centers across the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
For the last 10 years, CARD therapists have been a part of David Arthur’s life. They brought the treatment to their Upper West Side home, working hours with him as he learned to focus while doing simple tasks like washing his hands. They accompanied him to parks, shopping trips and school to teach him how to socialize in different environments.
“It allows a high-functioning autistic child to make that step to mainstream school by giving them the support they need,” Epner said said of their Applied Behavior Analysis approach — which breaks down tasks to their simplest parts and repeats each step.
Although they’ve provided services for children in New York City over the past 10 years, CARD has never had a brick and mortar facility in the city. So when Epner found out the church he was married in had a vacant room, he made the call.
“When the space opened up the pastor called my wife and I talked to CARD,” he said.
CARD signed a two-year lease to use part of the parish house of the Episcopal Church of St. Edward the Martyr on 109th Street and Fifth Avenue.
When the center opens next month, it will be able to provide services to adults as well as children, said Angelina Acevedo, operations manager.
People will be able to walk into the center — which consists of a former gym on the second floor, their kitchen on the parish house and an outdoor space on the side — and ask for treatment for autism and related disorders like ADD, ADHD and Asperger's syndrome, she added.
Adult treatment will consist of life training, like buying groceries and time management skills, and vocational training. CARD also plans to hold cooking classes in the kitchen and grow vegetables in the outdoor space provided, case manager Christina Piurek said.
Each patient is assigned to a team of CARD specialists that include therapists, case managers and a supervisor. Everyone on staff goes through a rigorous training program and continue to be trained throughout the year. All of the supervisors are Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certified, Piurek said.
Many of CARD’s patients are referred to them by insurance companies, but they work with families to find alternate sources of funding. Acevedo has sat down with parents to fill out grant applications, she said.
“It’s very important that families seek services, because they don’t always know they have access to them,” she said.
Part of setting up a physical presence in New York, specifically in East Harlem is to increase autism awareness. Diagnosis has increased 30 percent since 2008 and that is mostly because of more awareness about it, said CARD therapist Lauren Rivera.
The center has bilingual therapists who are trained to work with East Harlem’s Latino population. They plan to have several outreach programs to get the word out about their program, Rivera added.
The staff hope the new center will make life easier for parents who cannot do home treatment.
“The center can be more convenient to families,” said Piurek. “If both parents work it might be easier to send their child here.”
Having a local headquarters will allow them to establish a strong presence in the neighborhood by hosting community events like Halloween parties, summer barbecues and talent shows, said Acevedo.
"I'm going to be living here," said Epner, who is moving to East Harlem to be closer to the center.