Lighthouse Autism Center opens in Niles

NILES – A new option for families with children on the autism spectrum opened in Niles Monday.

Lighthouse Autism Center, 2753 S. 11th St., Niles, began accepting clients to its center-based, intensive early intervention program.

Clinical Regional Director for the centers Natalie Donkersloot led the opening of the center in Niles. Lighthouse Autism Center has locations in Mishawaka, Granger, Kalamazoo and Portage. Donkersloot said there was feedback coming in that the Niles area could benefit from a location.

“We have been looking for a building in Niles for years,” Donkersloot said. “This bank ended up coming up for sale. We bought it, renovated it, and it worked out nicely for our different therapy rooms. If there’s a need, we want to go to that community.”

The center offers programs tailored to clients’ needs in either a 20- or 40-hour-a-week approach.

“Our goal is to give [clients] the skills to be successful so that we can translate them into a school or group setting when they’re 5-, 6- or 7-years-old, when they’re ready,” Donkersloot said.

Therapists work one on one with clients at the center. An assessment is done to find out what skills and goals the center will work on with clients.

“It is all individualized to what we want to work on with the clients,” Donkersloot said.
Throughout the center, each room is filled with activities that feel like play for the children. There are specific activities in totes, a child-sized pretend grocery store, doctor’s office and diner table. Play equipment and stuffed animals all serve a purpose to address development.

“You don’t learn sitting at a table. Even a typical 3-year-old doesn’t sit at a table,” Donkersloot said. “We are teaching those behaviors in play-based settings in what [children] are motivated for.”

For example, if a child is drawn to a certain toy, the therapist might reward them with it when they indicate it by pointing or asking for it.

“[This] helps build appropriate play and to help build communications,” Donkersloot said. “Whether that’s through pointing, sign language, picture exchange communications or trying to teach speech sounds or words, we go at the client’s pace and try to build on it.”

Each activity focuses on three broader goals, including language, social development and speech. Upon arrival, clients come in and put their belongings in cubbies, just like in an elementary school. There is a lunch area modeled after a school’s lunch room, to learn to navigate eating and adjusting to the setting.

“We’re not working on letters and numbers here. We’re working on teaching functional communication, increasing social skills, increasing eye contact, responding to names, getting [clients] potty-trained and getting them used to using a fork and knife to feed themselves. Getting [them] those independent living skills that will significantly impact the home environment and help lessen the load on mom and dad,” Donkersloot said. “We do parent training, which is crucial. We want to make sure the skills we are using here in the center are transferring to the home setting and transferring to the community.”

Providing intensive, focused therapies to help clients function and thrive in educational and community settings is at the heart of the center, Donkersloot said.

More information on the Lighthouse Autism Center can be found at LighthouseAutismCenter.com/autism-center-in-niles-mi, or by calling (269) 248-5262.

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