Regional News in Review – June 2018

Autism Friendly Austin a success A southern Minnesota community’s initiative around autism is a success. Autism Friendly Austin provide activities […]

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Autism Friendly Austin a success

A southern Minnesota community’s initiative around autism is a success. Autism Friendly Austin provide activities for families with children on the autism spectrum, including respite nights at the local YMCA. Parents get a break and children have time to meet and play with other children. Children can play basketball, swim in the pool and enjoy other activities.

“It’s great,” said John Halvorson, as he dropped off eight-year-old Kirby. “It’s nice to get out. It’s also good for him to get out and mingle with other kids.”

Austin, a southern Minnesota city of 25,000, may best be known as the home of Hormel and Spam. But it has become one of the first cities nationwide to launch a concerted community-wide effort to make itself more welcoming to citizens with autism. The Autism Friendly Austin project has enlisted schools, businesses and residents in working to accommodate people with autism.

“This is one of only a handful of towns in the nation that I have heard of doing this,” said Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. “I think the citywide effort is really special.”

More than 3.5 million Americans are on the autism spectrum, according to the Autism Society of America. One of every 59 children has autism, according to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Minnesota, it’s estimated that more than 70,000 people have autism, either diagnosed or undiagnosed.

Autism Friendly Austin is a program of the Hormel Historic Home, whose mission includes providing educational opportunities for all people. The home began offering some autism-related programming in 2010, sponsoring summer day camps and other activities for autistic children. Last year, the Hormel Home began exploring the idea of expanding its efforts. A community task force suggested the goal of making Austin an autism-friendly city.

A gift from a former Hormel executive who wishes to remain anonymous allowed the home to hire Mary Barinka last fall as a community autism resource specialist. Barinka, who has a 16-year-old daughter with autism, believes she may be the only person in the country running a comprehensive, citywide autism program. Barinka’s own experience helping her daughter navigate the world was important in knowing the needs of autistic people and how to make others aware of them.

So far, the autism program has gotten support from nearly a dozen businesses. Business owners said it’s easy to take part and that it benefits all their customers, not just people with autism. Autistic people often focus intensely on a topic or a hobby. So the Spam Museum has invited autistic students to make presentations on their areas of interest.

“We had topics ranging from historic cameras to bugs to Matchbox cars,” said Savile Lord, the museum’s executive director. “They set up their own little tables and told our visitors about their areas of interest.”

The museum also has a “Spambassador” who’s a high school student with autism. He coaches the museum on the needs and wants of autistic people, such as a quiet room to retreat to when a situation becomes overwhelming.

“Lots of these things affect our patrons and our customers and the people who walk through our doors,” Lord said. “So for us to be aware of those things and be ready to accommodate them is important.” (Source: Star Tribune)


Man with disabilities killed by train

A Rochester man was struck and killed by a train May 18, after his mobility scooter got stuck in tracks near his home. Ricky Allen Thalacker, 58, was identified by Rochester Police Department officials.

A witness told the Post Bulletin he was stopped nearby when he heard the train’s horn sounding. He looked up to see Thalacker struggling to dislodge his scooter from where it was stuck. He then saw the accident. Thalacker was thrown by the train’s impact. The train was unable to stop in time.

Residents of Central Towers Apartments, a housing complex for seniors and people with disabilities where Thalacker lived, expressed shock and sadness that their friend and neighbor was killed in the accident. He was remembered as a kind and friendly man who liked to joke around, and who never complained about living with multiple disabilities and health issues. He enjoyed sports, especially the Green Bay Packers, and visits with his grandchildren.

The accident is under investigation. Anyone using a scooter or wheelchair is urged to be especially cautious when crossing railroad or light rail tracks, because of the possibility that a wheel can get caught. Ample time should be allowed to safely cross tracks. (Source: Rochester Post Bulletin)


Special education facility hailed

The Karner Blue Education Center in Blaine doesn’t look particularly special from the outside. Thanks to thoughtful design and robust staffing, school district officials here say it’s making an extraordinary difference for the 115
special education students who attend.

It’s spacious, ultra-quiet, with plenty of spaces for kindergarten through eighth-graders with autism, emotional and behavioral disorders, and cognitive disabilities to take timeouts and reset overloaded senses or amped-up emotions.

Karner Blue is the model the Fargo and West Fargo school districts are seeking to emulate with a $4.3 million renovation at Fargo’s Agassiz School to create a special education facility. Two classrooms will take up to 16 kindergarten through fifth-grade students this fall, with capacity expanded up to 64 students by fall 2019.

The facility is being designed not only for current needs but anticipated growth, as well as being open to taking in students from other area school districts in North Dakota’s South East Education Cooperative, Associate Superintendent Bob Grosz said.

Grosz said staff will be highly trained, with a low student-to-teacher ratio and a constellation of services in place to help students. “We truly want to meet the students where they are at,” he said.

Officials from Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District say that in the four years Karner Blue has been open, the calm atmosphere, small class sizes — five to seven students — and wraparound services the school offers have made it a place parents don’t want their children to leave — even when they are ready to return to their home schools. (Source: Fargo Forum)


Police change interpretation policy

Three St. Catherine University ASL students’ class project has result in policy changes in St. Paul Police Department communication with the deaf community.

“Interactions with the police can be stressful and difficult, and clear communication is important,” wrote students Catherine Fensom, Liza Leja and Pat Schmatz. “The potential for misunderstanding is high when the interpreter has limited language skills.”

Police and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, as well as six deaf community group representatives, met to help shape policy changes.

The previous policy said an officer must make a “qualified” interpreter available before taking a statement from a deaf person who is under arrest. The new policy specifies the interpreter must be nationally certified. Officers were previously required to provide victims or witnesses with a pen and paper or other way to communicate. The new policy says they may provide through an interpreter.

One of the groups involved in providing feedback to police, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), said in a statement Tuesday they “have a number of concerns with the policy and are working with our communities to develop a public response.”

One concern that has been raised is that police were supposed to have a national certified interpreter available for the past four years. That was part of a 2014 settlement with deaf community activist Douglas Bahl, after incidents during a 2006 traffic stop.

The police department is currently facing another lawsuit, in a separate case. For a project for their deaf culture class, Fensom said she and her classmates decided, “with the climate in today’s society regarding police officers, we thought it would be interesting to look at relations between police and the deaf community.”(Source: Pioneer Press)


Accessible van is fundraiser focus

Gilbert Hoppe put pictures of his hearing aids on a Facebook sales site for $1,000 with a handwritten note: Pair of
hearing aids for sale or trade for a good vehicle. While his quest for an accessible vehicle initially met snide comments, other stepped in to help him raise funds.

“It was pretty rude, the way some of them were talking,” said Hoppe, 75, a veteran who lives in North Mankato. But he was pleased when a spaghetti dinner fundraiser and an online campaign raised about $20,000.

“Gilbert was ready to give up his hearing so he could get a car to get to and from the VA in Mankato,” said Jena Marie Faue, who helped organize the fundraiser at the Eagle Lake American Legion Post 617. Others who had never met Hoppe also helped.

“It surprised me at first,” Hoppe said of the event. “I felt glad that people wanted to help me.” Hoppe, who served in the Army from 1962 to 1966 in Germany, has been fighting cancer since 2012. He lost a kidney in 2014. His wife has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and Hoppe has taken on caring for her as well. Both husband and wife are on oxygen.

The pair have a son, Jim, who lives with them. He helps take care of them and drives them to medical appointments.

Anderson, who had been among the first to jump in and defend Hoppe online, helped out with the event all the way from her college in South Dakota. “I am so happy that we were able to do this simple act of kindness,” she said. “It just makes you feel good at the end of the day knowing that you helped someone else out.” (Source: Mankato Free Press)


Student with disabilities remembered

United South Central High School student Anna Aadsen died in July 2017 from complications from Aicardi syndrome, a genetic disorder.

This spring her classmates, the graduating seniors at the school in Wells, dedicated a rock monument in her honor. They and their teachers credit Aadsen with teaching them valuable life lessons.

Anna Aadsen used a wheelchair. She couldn’t speak but interacted frequently with her schoolmates. “Even though Anna couldn’t speak, she still told a story,” said Terri Seedorf, her case manager at United South Central. “The United South Central school district and the administrators, the teachers, the students — everyone here just embraced her life.”

“People learned empathy; people learned courage,” Seedorf said. “Her life was taken too soon. She wasn’t done finishing her story. Her memory will always be in our hearts. This is just one way to let this small community know
that we truly cared for her and her family.”

Aadsen would have graduated this year. She was honored at the graduation ceremony in early June. (Source: Albert Lea Tribune)


Drug is linked to disabilities

Duluth resident Shawn Bolf, 44, is among a growing number of people living with mefloquine poisoning or mefloquine toxicity. Its symptoms include vertigo and double vision. The condition is believed to stem from taking the antimalarial drug mefloquine, which Bolf and many other military personnel were required to take. Bolf was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2010 as a member of the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard.

Bolf contends he shouldn’t have been prescribed the drug and shouldn’t have been required to keep taking it in Afghanistan, even when he developed symptoms so severe that he had to be medically evacuated to Germany before his three-month mission was complete.

The U.S. Department of Defense had issued a memorandum four months before Bolf’s deployment warning about the potential risks of mefloquine and identifying a different drug that should be used instead. Medical professionals have disagreed about the drug’s impacts but the issue has caught the attention of Congressman Rick Nolan.

“Situations like this are heartbreaking and tragic and cannot go unchecked,” Nolan said in a statement. “I intend to call for immediate action by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to further investigate the use of this drug and its consequences and how we might best remediate the great harm and damage that has been caused to some of our servicemen and women.”

Mefloquine was developed in the 1960s. Back then there were concerns about the drug’s “neuro-psychiatric effects.” It was nonetheless the military’s antimalarial drug of choice for 25 years, not really abandoned until 2013. It is now considered a drug of last resort. (Source: KSTP TV, Duluth News-Tribune)


Children’s facility to East Bethel?

A month after Forest Lake city officials said no, a proposed psychiatric treatment center for children and teens is getting a warm welcome from people in East Bethel.

“It’s an opportunity for our community to address a serious crisis in our state,” said East Bethel Mayor Steven Voss. “We are embracing this project.” He spoke at a recent community gathering.

The proposed move, to a 36-acre east bethel site, is meeting more support than opposition. Some neighbors have raises concerns. Others said the facility is needed. If all goes as planned ground would be broken this year and the facility open in 2019.

The Hills Youth and Family Services has been seeking a space for a 60-bed treatment facility for clients age 6 to 17. The Duluth-based nonprofit ran up against storing resistance in Forest Lake, where a longtime stables and horse farm would have become its new home. While community members and the Planning Commission there support the facility, the mayor and some City Council members campaigned gained the project and it was dropped.

But in East Bethel, the Duluth-based nonprofit is meeting a positive response. The $26 million project, which will provide 150 new jobs, is praised for its innovative approach to children’s mental health issues. The facility is badly needed according to mental health advocates.

Other communities reached out after Forest Lake city leaders rejected a needed zoning change for the facility. Hills officials describe the response in East Bethel as “night and day” when looking at what they experienced in Forest Lake. Hills is working with East Bethel city officials to secure a site. (Source: Star Tribune)


Rate of autism brought to light

A new study by the Minnesota-Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network at the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration identified 1 in 42 children or 2.4 percent of the observed population as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Minnesota. Focused on children who were eight years old, the study relied on 2014 data from the health and special education records of 9,767 children in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

As part of a nationwide network of studies funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disability Monitoring Network, the Minnesota-specific study shows the rate of ASD is higher than the national average. The CDC found that, on average, 1 in 59 or 1.7 percent of children was identified as having ASD in communities where prevalence was tracked by the network.

This is the first time Minnesota has been involved in the network’s work. “Minnesota’s higher prevalence rates could be due, in part, to the concentration of services and supports in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,” said Amy Hewitt, the principal investigator for the Minnesota study.

The Minnesota study is unique in relation to other ADDM Network studies because, in addition to examining data from white, black and Hispanic populations, it also collected information on two immigrant groups with large populations in Minnesota — Somali and Hmong. The study found no significant statistical differences in prevalence rates between Somali and non-Somali children or between Hmong and other children. The prevalence finding was 1 in 26 for Somali children and 1 in 54 for Hmong children. “While both these numbers may look very different from the overall Minnesota average of 1 in 42, the sample sizes were too small to be able to tell if these differences are real or occurred by random chance,” Hewitt said. “By being able to expand our study area beyond the borders of Hennepin and Ramsey counties in future studies, we will be able to gain a better perspective on autism rates among all Minnesotans, including those of Somali and Hmong descent.”

“Understanding the prevalence of autism in Minnesota communities is a critical first step as we make plans to ensure access to services from childhood through adulthood,” said Hewitt. “We hope that as a result of the MN-ADDM project, the differences uncovered in this study will help us better understand health disparities in our state and to expand Minnesota’s autism support services and workforce network.” (Source: University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration)


Loss of housing a worry

With the sale of Brooklyn Center’s Earle Brown Terrace senior living facility, residents were notified that they had to be out by June 15.

Dozens of people are scrambling to find new housing after being told this month that the facility where they live is being sold and will close. The same thing is happening in Bloomington. The two cases are causing worry for people with disabilities and seniors, at a time when there is an affordable housing shortage.

Residents of Earle Brown Terrace learned in a May 1 letter that their leases and home-care services are being terminated due to the June 15 closure, a decision that management officials say partly stems from years of low occupancy.

That gives them six weeks to leave — a timetable that their families are decrying as too tight to find new housing, especially for residents who are low-income, have disabilities or may lack relatives to help them.

Some families are quick to praise staff efforts to help residents navigate their options, but many describe the quick time frame as a hardship and say they wonder whether building managers could have let them know sooner.

The news has left 73-year-old resident Johnetta Dysart grieving the loss of friendships, as her neighbors disperse to different facilities.

“I’m angry,” Dysart said. “This is my home and they are taking it away from me.” What angers her, she said, is the time frame seniors have been given to leave. (Source: Star Tribune)




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