Autism learning center opens in Benton Harbor

A ribbon cutting Thursday evening in Benton Harbor marked the grand opening of a new autism learning center.

“This area is just criminally underserved,” Logan Center Michigan Director of Development Patrick Roemer said. “It’s a population of 285,000 people, that tri-county area.”

The underserved area is southwest Michigan’s Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties; where resources for families who have loved ones with autism have historically been lacking.

Berrien County native Kristin Wier was running a successful autism learning center in east Michigan 10 years ago, but repeated trips home made her realize how great the need was here in Michiana.

“To know that internally, I could do something to make [the lives of families with autistic loved ones] better, and I felt like I wasn’t because I wasn’t living here, it was really hard,” Wier, who is the clinical site director of the new Berrien County center said. “I wanted what I knew could be possible to be where I grew up.”

So she came back home in 2006 and started working with the Logan Center out of South Bend; dispatching herself across southwest Michigan to help 127 families adjust to life with an autistic loved one, all on her own.

But Wier wanted to do more, so she found a permanent location after a few years doing business out of a St. Joe, MI church basement.

“We found this school, which was Stump Elementary School out of Benton Harbor, and we approached the school [district] and asked if we could purchase it because it wasn’t being used at the time,” Wier said.

The old school had been sitting empty for three years.

Now, it’s completely renovated and back in action as the Logan Autism Learning Center of Southwest Michigan.

“Through [the Logan Center’s] support, they allowed us to add windows, central heating and cooling, obviously new carpeting, new lighting, new plumbing,” Wier said. “Pretty much everything internally was redone.”

Now 97 clients attend the learning center.

They’re taught everything from toilet training to speaking, playing and interacting with friends; all in a brand new facility that defies traditional learning center stereotypes of being sterile and bland.

“We wanted it to be an environment that looks like a school purposely,” Wier said. “So our clients can transition to their school and be very successful. So, it’s bright and colorful and very welcoming.”

But their work is not done.

Being the only autism learning center in southwest Michigan means thousands of families who have been without help will now have access.

“If you take 1 in 68, which is the CDC rate at which autism occurs, that gives you 4,180 people [in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties who are autistic],” Roemer said. “So, statistically, we’re not even scratching that surface.”

Logan Center’s chief strategy officer explained why the types of therapy they do are so beneficial to families adjusting to life with an autistic loved one.

“I was just talking this morning about a family who hadn’t been able to go to a restaurant for almost two years, and because of the therapy that we were able to provide to their child, they just went out to a restaurant for the first time,” Dr. Joshua John Diehl said in an interview Thursday morning.

“That’s such a crucial part of what we do,” Dr. Diehl said, referring to therapy that focuses on the individual client and family. “The benefits are that the child gets more support and has more room for growth, but the family is also empowered to be able to help their child, and that improves their relationship and it improves their own self-worth.”

The Logan Autism Learning Center of Southwest Michigan is located at 1651 Nickerson Avenue in Benton Harbor.

Children and adults with developmental disabilities are welcome to enroll in the learning center, and at-home therapy is available as well. 

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