A center offering an intensive approach to autism disorders started by treating two children and has grown by leaps.

Deb Thomas launched autism treatment center Partners in Excellence to help children with autism spectrum disorders after learning of challenges families face

When their son developed a physical disability, Deb and Bruce Thomas created a nonprofit organization to provide education and other services for him and other children with special needs.

As Deb Thomas advocated for those children, she met an increasing number of women with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), including autism and Asperger syndrome, a group of developmental disabilities that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. One of every 110 children nationally has an ASD, according to the CDC.

Deb Thomas took action again, launching Partners in Education, a commercial autism treatment center headquartered in Burnsville. The center uses a type of behavior and communication treatment known as applied behavior analysis (ABA), which the CDC says is widely accepted among health care professionals and is used in many schools and treatment centers and sometimes in homes.

“She had two parents that were struggling with an ABA program in their house,” Bruce Thomas said of how Deb came to start Partners in Education. “Typically, the mom becomes the manager of the program, the needs to get the curriculum, manage the staff and make sure she has coverage for all the therapy. They came to Debby and said, ‘We want this program out of our house and we want you to manage the staff.'”

Partners started with those two children in 2001. Today the center has 125 employees and treats more than 100 children at its 36,000-square-foot building in Burnsville and locations in Edina and North St. Paul. The Thomases are working to find space and professionals to partner with in a potential new location in La Crosse, Wis. Last year’s revenue was close to $6 million.

“I never expected Partners in Excellence to grow to the size it is today, but I’m delighted that we’re filling a need in the community and will keep continuing to grow as the needs present themselves to us,” said Deb Thomas, whose entrepreneurial efforts led to her recognition earlier this year as one of Dakota County’s “exceptional businesswomen” by a local business publication.

“The first six years, we grew 30 to 40 percent a year, which is a hard pace to keep up,” Bruce Thomas said. “The challenge was how do you keep growing your staff and insuring that the quality of your program meets or exceeds expectations. We’ve been able to do that because we have a phenomenal staff. People in this industry have a heart for it. It’s allowed us a lot of flexibility to focus on the business component.”

Offers intensive therapy

Partners provides intensive early intervention therapy focusing on social and academic skills for children ages 1 through 10, for up to 40 hours a week for an average of 2 1/2 years, Deb Thomas said. It also provides speech pathology and occupational therapy services at all three of its sites.

Partners works with licensed psychologists to diagnose children and to help with family skills training and individual psychotherapy. Children are referred by school districts, county agencies and psychologists. Only two insurance companies and the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association (MCHA) plan cover ABA treatment, Deb Thomas said, and she and others are advocating for changes that would increase coverage.

Partners is included in the Autism Society of Minnesota’s resource guide, the content of which is driven by parents, a spokeswoman said.

“Partners has been very successful, we hear from many parents,” said Barbara Luskin, consulting psychologist with the Autism Society of Minnesota.

“They seem to be quite effective. No business, no provider, nobody can satisfy everybody, but they have a solid reputation with parents.”

Prof. Joe Reichle, research director for the Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopment and Related Disabilities (LEND) program at the University of Minnesota, said research studies suggest the ABA form of therapy “has the strongest base of empirical support of any strategy.” Though he has not seen Partners’ application of the therapy, he said the company’s growth appears to be a sign of parental endorsement.

‘Lifesaver for us’

Molly Fliearman, a mother of quadruplets who has had three of her children at Partners, said the center has been “quite the lifesaver for us. And that’s a bit of an understatement.”

With therapy and parent training from Partners, a son who has been severely affected has gone from “10 percent success outside of the home to 90 percent able to go out,” said Fliearman, of Bloomington.

“I’m not going to tell you he was cured or fixed,” she said. “He has his limits, but we can confidently go out with him now, and it’s nice. They’ve helped educate us and give us tools to help cope with it. It’s made a huge difference for him going into school.”

Bruce Sullivan of Apple Valley said he and his wife researched treatments and treatment centers over the six months they had to wait for MCHA coverage.

“We felt very comfortable this would give [our son] the best opportunity to live as independent a life as possible,” said Sullivan, noting that his son had made strides academically and socially since started at Partners in January, when he was 4.

“They matched our passion to make him the best individual he can possibly be, and I see that each and every time I drop him off and pick him up and talk to him before and after.”

Jim Keenan, a licensed psychologist who has his own practice and has supervised Partners’ treatment program since September, said he believed Partners does a good job of incorporating ABA’s strengths, working with children to develop skills and monitor progress, while also building strong relationships with the children.

Partners is one of several treatment centers in the Twin Cities metro area that uses the ABA approach, Keenan said.

“In the community it’s well known and embraced,” Keenan said. “It’s effective and definitely there are results. Even in my short tenure there, you can see kids grow and develop …. They certainly have had their share of great successes.”

June 27th, 2010
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