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Support for Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health Challenges

In April, we recognize National Autism Awareness Month by wearing pins with a recognizable puzzle pattern and connecting with organizations that support or educate about autism to create further awareness. However, the depth, scope and complexities of intellectual disabilities were actually realized in 1912 by a woman who was a pioneer in the field, Helena Devereux.

Today, her namesake nonprofit is one of the largest and most advanced healthcare organizations in the country, connecting the latest scientific and medical advancements to practical, effective interventions in the treatment of behavioral health. Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida was established in 1987 to meet the emotional and behavioral needs of youth in Florida. The nonprofit organization has developed a 30-year history of providing expert care to treat the most severe
combination of autism and mental health conditions — known as dual diagnosis — through intensive residential treatment, specialized group homes, foster care and, most recently, the introduction of its Behavioral Support Program.

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. While it can be diagnosed at any age, symptoms generally appear in the first few years of life.

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to 2016 data. More specifically, 1 in 34 boys and 1 in 144 girls are identified with autism.

Individuals with autism may communicate, interact, behave and learn differently than most other people. They often have problems with social, emotional and communication skills as well as developing and maintaining relationships. With the help of medical professionals, parents can work with their children to set expectations and manage behaviors — though this tends to be more difficult as the child grows older.

Autism Spectrum Disorder by the Numbers

1 in 54 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder

4x more common in males

4x to 6x: the difference in medical expenditures for children and adolescents with autism than for those without autism

$40,000 to $60,000: the cost of intensive behavioral interventions per child, per year for services provided in-home

$150,000: the average cost of intensive behavioral interventions per child, per year for inpatient or residential care

The Escalation of Mental Health Issues

During the teenage years, when it is developmentally appropriate
for youth to place greater value on peer relationships and feelings of acceptance, issues stemming from autism can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. This is due to the social stigmas caused by differences in the ways autistic individuals communicate and interact, which may lead to additional challenges such as becoming a victim of bullying behavior.

For any adolescent, the social and emotional impact of bullying is felt greatly; however, it further exacerbates the already challenging issues faced by those with autism who may then experience changes in their symptoms, behaviors and co-occurring health conditions.

Co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression, are common with autism. Some psychiatric conditions could present as well. This is known as dual diagnosis.

In addition to bullying, the impact of hormonal changes in adolescence might escalate the situation for individuals with autism. When behaviors that are typically easily managed in the home shift to the child or adolescent becoming a danger to themselves, such as with suicidal thoughts or actions, it becomes a mental health crisis.

For these families, access to services that support dual diagnosis is exponentially challenging. With dual diagnosis cases, one issue often disqualifies access to care or available funding despite the need. This is where Devereux’s Behavioral Support Program is a critical resource that provides access to a variety of well-established programs for families who have exhausted their options.

Devereux’s Impact on Behavioral and Mental Health

“We have seen firsthand the life-changing impact that can be made when behavioral treatment is delivered in a clinically sound approach that also addresses the impact to a child’s mental health,” says Devereux Florida’s Executive Director Michelle Llorens.

It all began with the Viera Campus in Brevard County, Devereux’s first program established in Florida. Due to its proven record of success in treating the most severe combination of mental health challenges and developmental disabilities, state agencies, healthcare providers and families across the state and country seek placement at its intensive residential treatment facility.

Locally, residential care is provided at Devereux’s Winter Park campus, where specialized services include group home treatment and an adult day treatment program for individuals with more profound developmental disabilities. The intensive behavioral treatment is based on the principals of Applied Behavior Analysis and serve individuals from age five through adulthood.

As part of a continuum of care, other Devereux programs include outpatient counseling and other specialized, community-based services such as a Mobile Response Team, treatment foster care and, most importantly, emotional support. The demand for any combination of all of these services have led to the vision and development of Devereux’s Behavioral Support Program.

“After seeing the remarkable transformation that can be made once youth are placed with us in our residential programs, we have said many times, for many years, that we just wished we could have been able to work with this individual sooner,” Llorens says. “This is a rewarding opportunity to finally do this, through this new program, and we hope to be in a position to continue to serve more families.”

What is the Devereux Behavioral Support Program?

When it comes to supporting individuals with mental health disorders in combination with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Devereux understands that each case is unique. Through the Behavioral Support Program, a multi-disciplinary approach with collective resources available through Devereux’s established service array contribute
to the development of a support plan that is customized to the unique needs of the individual. This could include some or all of the following:

• Specialized referral and care coordination
• Support with accessing resources within the
existing system of care
• Individualized assessment
• Functional behavioral assessments
• Development of individualized behavioral plans
• Caregiver training and support
• Community consultation

“We are grateful to be in a position to provide this type of support for families who are in desperate need for help,” says Devereux Florida’s Director of External Affairs Lindsey Phillips. “Through our collective resources and combined expertise, we have the unique ability to provide a level of service that is not commonly offered through many direct service providers, and furthermore is not typically funded. Our goal is to support families before the treatment needs are at the point of requiring psychiatric hospitalizations or long-term residential treatment. And, if and when that need presents, to walk through the crisis together and provide wraparound support for the child and the family.”

How You Can Get Involved with Devereux’s Mission

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida unlocks and nurtures human potential for people living with emotional, behavioral or cognitive differences. Community support has been the key to providing life-changing services for individuals and families facing challenges from these diagnoses. There are several ways you can get involved.

Refer: If your family is experiencing any of the challenges mentioned in this article, you don’t have to face it alone. Devereux is recognized nationally for its expert level of care for families just like yours. For immediate help for your family or a family you know, reach out directly to referral@devereux.org.

Participate: Do you need help with understanding your child’s diagnosis and managing their behaviors? Devereux can provide the tools your family needs. Sign up for training announcements or receive more information by emailing DevereuxFlorida@devereux.org.

Learn: Interested in learning more about the services Devereux provides for individuals and families in crisis? For more information about Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida, visit DevereuxFL.org.

Donate: A contribution of $25 provides a virtual consultation session to a family in need. Text “DevereuxFlorida” to 41444 to make a monetary gift.

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Written by Lyndsay Fogarty

Lyndsay Fogarty has had many roles at Central Florida Lifestyle, working her way from intern to contributing writer to managing editor. She is a graduate of the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication where she earned her degree in journalism. Along the way, she has learned that teamwork and dedication to your craft will get you far, and a positive outlook on the present will get you even farther.

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