The Loher family of Crystal began looking for a day program for their son a year and a half before he was to graduate from high school. They were discouraged by the lack of choices they found for Nathan, who has autism. Nathan is sweet and funny but struggles with feeling safe in new surroundings and needed more staff support than most programs offered. Then they toured Opportunity Partners’ Karlins Center in Plymouth and knew it would be a good fit. Its 1:4 staff to client ratio and customized programming was just what Nathan needed. That was four years ago and Nathan continues to progress. “I just can’t say enough about the staff,” said Nathan’s mom, Bobi, adding that a Karlins staff person spent hours getting to know Nathan at their home before he was to start the program.
Karlins staff created an area at the center just for Nathan, a room filled with some of his favorite things that made him feel safe yet in close proximity to others so he could watch and interact. Over time, he felt comfortable participating in classes, even going on community activities like fishing and taking part in simple work projects. “To see him get up every day and be happy about going to work – that means the world to us,” Bobi said. “It’s telling us that what they are doing there is working.”
Karlins Center is operated by Opportunity Partners, a Twin Cities nonprofit that serves 1,300 people with developmental disabilities, brain injury and other special needs at sites across the Twin Cities. Company-wide, Opportunity Partners offers programs to meet employment, education and residential needs and make it possible for clients to live and work in the community. Opportunity Partners expanded Karlins Center in summer 2004, increasing license capacity from 30 to 50 individuals and reducing its three-year waiting list. More than half of the clients served at Karlins have autism; the others have special behavioral needs making the program a good fit for them.
Karlins Center is a sought-after program because it offers more choices than many other programs:
It is the only Minnesota day program focusing on adults with autism with an employment focus. Karlins center clients have worked on supervised teams at local parks doing cleaning and at an area greenhouse. Karlins
offers onsite contract packaging jobs for individuals to learn work skills.
Community focused classes, which are developed with clients’ interests in mind, include activities like going to the library, learning to cook and swimming. “We take advantage of community resources and attractions like the Maple Grove Community Center with its calming water and fountains and the Basilica’s wide open spaces and its unique architecture,” Fries said.
Karlins Center also has a kitchen for a cooking class and a computer lab, and the center contracts for on-site occupational and speech therapy. Many of the clients face communication challenges and use communication devices to help them communicate with others.
Enhanced Environmental Experience
Even the center’s physical design takes into consideration the unique needs of people with autism and other high needs. It has spacious hallways, low-glare lighting, neutral paint colors and other features, such as a sensory room with an ocean-scene mural, black lighting and other soothing elements.
“Many people with autism experience sensory overload which can interfere with their ability to communicate, maintain appropriate behaviors and connect with the world,” said Sue Fries, Karlins manager. “Our staff developed the sensory room to be a place clients can go that is calming and interesting, away from stress, a place to come back to one’s self and regain composure.”
Opportunity Partners has offered specialized programming for adults with autism since 1986. The autism program moved to the Plymouth location in 1996 and the building was named after Miriam Karlins, a nationally known leader in human services and long-time Opportunity Partners board member. Miriam passed away in August 2003, but her memory lives on at the center. The program is beginning to see a younger population with an influx of students graduating from high school. A growing need for these services will continue to be as more students with autism progress through the school system.
For information about Karlins Center, contact Sue Fries at [email protected] or 763-553-1933 x 201