Thursday, August 30th, 2012
By Shelley Grieshop
Autism program grabs state's attention
Nine counties share therapy program
  COLDWATER - A blonde-haired boy happily bounced on playground equipment in the park as his therapist told his story.
Before the child's parents were introduced to the Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters Project, the 3-year-old frequently buried his head in the carpet, kept to himself and would not talk, Colleen Zunk said. Weeks after PLAY therapy began, he started speaking and relating to others.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard these kids tell their parents 'I love you' for the first time," Zunk, of Carthagena, said with tears in her eyes. "To get to witness this ... I have a great job."
She also has a big job.
The spunky therapist serves as the PLAY Project in-home consultant for 24 autistic children across nine counties including Mercer and Auglaize. Officials are hoping to snag additional funds in the future to hire more in-home therapists, they said during a special gathering of state and local leaders on Wednesday at Coldwater Memorial Park.
The PLAY Project - a national program - was initiated in Mercer County under the direction of Mike Overman, superintendent of the board of developmental disabilities. Ohio Department of Development Disabilities Director John Martin and Gov. John Kasich's chief policy advisor Randy Cole on Wednesday gave kudos to Overman and his staff for starting the program and sharing resources with other agencies.
The PLAY Project was created in 2001 by Dr. Richard Solomon of Ann Arbor, Mich., and focuses heavily on boosting relationships - "one of the things most kids with autism struggle with," said Martin, who is a parent of a child with developmental disabilities.
The program is most effective for children ages 18 months to 5 years old. Therapists can teach parents how to provide hours of intervention therapy for their autistic children at a cost of $4,000 per year, much less than professional intensive therapy at $40,000 to $60,000 annually.
Overman said his staff several years ago recognized the need for in-home therapy coaching after learning a local family was frequently traveling with their young autistic child to Ann Arbor for treatment at Solomon's office. He approached Martin in 2010 with a plan to implement the program in the nine area counties organized as WesCon. Martin authorized a grant of $75,000 as seed money to start the program; expenses, including Zunk's salary, are now shared among all nine counties' DD boards at a cost of $450 per month for each child enrolled, Overman said.
To date, 34 families - most in Mercer County - have benefited from the therapy, Overman said.     
"The PLAY Project is one of the most wonderful things I've ever been associated with," he said. "Parents are getting a wonderful support service that was never there before. The plus is it's available to anyone who needs it."
Celina resident Dawn Schilling knows first-hand the success of PLAY after witnessing its effect on her granddaughter, 4-year-old Marleigh. In the beginning, the little girl rarely spoke and was more content being alone. She would line up her toys but not play with them, Schilling said.
"She didn't want to mess up their order. Then Colleen gave us tips such as getting down on (Marleigh's) level. She told us to get in there and do things with her, not just stand over her," she said.
The little girl quickly began talking more and playing like other children her age, Schilling said. Zunk also videotapes the coaching sessions so parents can review the sessions and track the child's progress, she added.
"PLAY Project is about simple ways to help get a child engaged," she said, adding that music was an instrumental tool for Marleigh. "We need these services with so many children today being diagnosed with autism. It's a godsend."
Cole said the PLAY Project is one of 16 successful shared services programs being touted by state officials this year. Sharing services makes them cheaper and more accessible to everyone, especially residents of small communities and rural areas.
"It's time to encourage our officials to check their egos at the door" and use tax dollars more wisely by working together, he told the audience of more than 50 people gathered under the park's shade trees.
Cole said there are 3,962 agencies or units of government across the state, such as boards of commissioners, township trustees and village councils.
"How can you be effective if you do something 3,962 times?" he asked.
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