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Published Feb. 27, 2014                                      

Charlie's Gift benefits families facing autism
Organization uses intra-disciplinary approach to children with
ASD and other disorders


By Ken Knutson

   Kathy Mensik has a special designation for the doctors and therapists who have come alongside her 6-year-old son on his journey through ADHD and sensory processing disorder.
   “I call them, ‘Jonas’ Angels’ ” Mensik said. “Anybody who fights for him.”
Central to that team are the staff of Charlie’s Gift Autism Center, a division of The Community House that provides services to children with autism spectrum disorder and related diagnoses at its facility in Downers Grove.
   Jonas has been going to Charlie’s Gift for about two years, Mensik said, and the improvement in his behavior has been dramatic.
   “He makes leaps and bounds,” she said. “From (age) 3 to 6, I have a different kid.”
   It wasn’t until Jonas was 3 that Mensik gained validation for her strong belief that Jonas’ struggles in group situations signaled more than just hyperactivity.
   She was at almost at the end of her emotional rope after seeing multiple social workers and psychologists and receiving test results that indicated no cognitive delay or significant speech problems.
   “Everybody kept saying, ‘He looks good on paper.’ But his is all behavioral,” she said. “Nobody could see him as I saw him.”
   When the diagnosis of sensory processing disorder finally emerged, a nurse at the clinical psychologist’s office offered a key piece of counsel.
   “She said, ‘You need to go see somebody at Charlie’s Gift,’ ” Mensik related.
Mensik and her husband live in Romeoville with Jonas and his older sister, so the agency was not on her radar.
   At Charlie’s Gift, Jonas was put under the care of psychiatrist Aimee Koerner-Frank and occupational therapist Grace Solik. The agency uses a team approach, officials said, to ensure that treatment is comprehensive.
   He goes to the center for one-hour sessions twice a week, where he is guided in tasks such a getting ready for bed or following directions, often through play therapy.
   Koerner-Frank said Mensik will often call ahead to let her know of any specific needs.
   “It’s more child-based,” she said. “I may have an agenda of what I want to do, but it’s really based on where the family is looking for help.”
   Equipping Jonas to regulate his emotions will lead to better behavior, Koerner-Frank said, and their work to bolster his language skills helps him express his feelings.
   In addition, Charlie’s Gift aims to enhance families’ quality of life, she said, which can greatly suffer when issues like property destruction or aggressive behavior is involved.
   “Those are really the issues that affect a family’s well-being,” Koerner-Frank said. “We’ll provide that support for any family member that may want it.”
   Kathy Ruffulo, director of clinical services at Charlie’s Gift, said the monthly program Sibshops offers special activities for clients’ brothers and sisters, who may sometimes feel neglected.
   She believes the agency is a welcome oasis for families on a taxing road.
   “I would say it holds the family together,” she said. “It’s a comprehensive program of clinicians and family support. That’s the two pieces that pull it all together for them.”
   Mensik appreciates the new perspective she’s gained through the organization.
   “I need to understand how Jonas sees the world so I can teach him to live in ours,” she said. “I am going to do everything I can to get my kid to succeed.”
   Mensik credits Charlie’s Gift staff with helping her navigate insurance protocols and said they are always responsive to her concerns.
   She said “Dr. Aimee” even went to Jonas’ preschool to help the staff there understand the unique aspects of his condition.
   “He’s fallen between the cracks so many times,” Mensik said of her son. “It wasn’t until I came here that I felt I had a team around me. I just adore them here.”

Sizing up Charlie’s Gift

Founded: 2007; came under the auspices of The Community House in 2009
Location: 1048 W. Ogden Ave., Suite 200, Downers Grove
Number of families served: about 40 in any given week. About 100 different families use the agency’s services over the course of a year.
Age range: 3-15
Services offered: behavioral and counseling services, occupational therapy and speech language services
Other programs: Coffee and Conversations monthly parent support group and Sibshops monthly recreation groups for siblings of Charlie’s Gift clients
Fundraiser: Walk the Walk for Autism at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, April 27.




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