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‘Pretty phenomenal’: Pingree Center making a difference for Utah children, adults with autism

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Jake Beagley takes in a lesson at his school, the Pingree Autism Center of Learning. (Provided by Stan Beagley)

Jake Beagley takes in a lesson at his school, the Pingree Autism Center of Learning. (Provided by Stan Beagley)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – On his first day of sending his son with autism to a traditional school, Stan Beagley knew it wouldn’t be a great fit for Jake.

Born with what is known as autism-plus, a severe case of autism combined with increased difficulties in communication and behavior, Jake needed specialized, individual care to best live a happy life.

Luckily for Jake and his family, they found that kind of treatment and attention at the Carmen B. Pingree Children’s Autism Center in Salt Lake City.

“At Pingree, it’s like they’re happy to see him every day, he goes up and hugs the staff, I mean it’s a whole different ballgame,” says Beagley, describing the difference in specialized treatment at the school.

Jake, now 23, has been attending Pingree since second grade. With Pingree’s upcoming opening of its adult care center later this month, Jake and other adults with autism could continue to receive treatment for years to come.

For parents like the Beagleys, the Center has been a lifesaver. Not only are the students taught basic academic lessons, like the alphabet and numbers, but also life skills that make living with autism much easier on the kids and their families. Trips to the grocery store to learn to shop for basic needs and use money are notable items in the curriculum, as well as learning to do laundry using a washer and dryer.

In Jake’s case, getting toilet-trained was a major milestone that he achieved, thanks to his teachers.

“It took us nine years to get him potty trained,” Beagley recalls. “The school is particularly responsible for that. We were ready to give up several times and they just stuck with it and said, ‘hey if you guys work with it, it will work,’ and now he’s completely potty trained.”

Beagley called that skill, while simple for many, a “miracle” in Jake’s life.

Another skill learned at Pingree that has changed Jake’s life has been sign language. Due to the severity of Jake’s condition, he doesn’t speak and would struggle to communicate his wants and needs to his family. By learning sign language at the school, Jake is now able to express himself. He often gives the same response every time his dad asks about his day at school by giving the sign for “good,” with a happy look on his face.

According to its website, the Pingree Center was founded in the late 1970s by Carmen Pingree, a parent of a child with autism who noticed a severe lack of autism services in the state. Fast forward to today and the center has been renowned as one of the best autism treatment facilities in the country. The Adult Autism Center, which will have its ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, will be the first of its kind in the state.

A lot has changed in the understanding and treatment of autism since the center’s opening in the 70s, according to the school’s director, Sarah Buchanan. Research and development in the field of applied behavior analysis have provided breakthrough strategies in helping people with autism better function in their environments.

“We really look at function relationships to improve the quality of life and to increase skills in the individuals we work with,” says Buchanan.

While there is a lot of science behind the scenes, the joy of helping those with autism is easily seen by Buchanan and the staff at the Pingree Center.

“Every day, interacting with the clients that we have is a joy to me, but really the progress that the individuals here are able to make and seeing them learn and grow and build that confidence, it’s pretty phenomenal,” Buchanan tells ABC4.

To Beagley, Jake is in the right place for his needs and that was obvious from day one.

“When you have a kid with autism, you try to figure out what’s going to be the best for him, what’s going to be meaningful for him,” says Buchanan. “And from the minute we went there, we just felt like this is where he belongs.”

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