MOORHEAD — The four-year-old girl, her brown hair pulled back in a braid, knew only a handful of words when she began treatment for autism.

Now, though there are still some barriers, she communicates more like a typically developing child her age, talking and playing with others.

She’s one of numerous children being treated at Autism Innovation in Motion or AIM, the first dedicated autism clinic in Moorhead, located at 1505 30th Ave. S.

The facility opened its doors in March, but held a grand opening on Thursday, May 30, to spread the word to families, teachers, case managers, pediatricians and other mental health providers.

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The goal is to meet the growing need — and demand — for early intervention in autism treatment.

Jolene Germain, AIM program director, said the clinic serves people with autism ranging in age from 18 months to 21 years.

“If we start children earlier, upon first diagnosis, they have a better trajectory for progress,” Germain said.

 Guests visit the new Autism Innovation in Motion clinic during their open house in south Moorhead on Thursday, May 30, 2019.
David Samson / The Forum
Guests visit the new Autism Innovation in Motion clinic during their open house in south Moorhead on Thursday, May 30, 2019. David Samson / The Forum

The clinic is a program of Solutions Behavioral Healthcare Professionals, a local provider of mental health services.

Dr. Jan Witte-Bakken, clinical director and co-founder for Solutions, said the AIM clinic provides innovative approaches to autism therapy.

“Our program wraps around the whole family for intervention and support,” Witte-Bakken said.

Autism treatment is offered at various health care facilities in the Fargo-Moorhead metro, and West Fargo is home to the North Dakota Autism Center.

This clinic, however, is the first of its kind in Moorhead. AIM operates other facilities in Minnesota, including in Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Alexandria and St. Cloud.

From solitary lives to community involvement

Joel Bakken, executive director for Solutions, said autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to socialize, can cause repetitive actions, or make them hypersensitive to their environment.

Early in his career, he worked at the Grafton State School in Grafton, N.D.

The institution later closed following a lawsuit, claiming the state mistreated the developmentally disabled patients who lived there.

Bakken said at the time, there were only a half dozen people diagnosed as having autism in the entire state. They were not a part of the community and lived a very solitary life, he said.

As time went on, people learned more about how to help people with autism.

  Youngsters play in the activity space at Autism Innovation in Motion in south Moorhead.
David Samson / The Forum
Youngsters play in the activity space at Autism Innovation in Motion in south Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

Now, therapists use specialized teaching strategies to help those children function more like their typically developing peers.

Like many autism specialists, the AIM clinic incorporates applied behavioral analysis, an approach to improving behavior.

Germain said employees use a type of prompt to evoke a positive behavior, such as looking a person in the eyes or communicating in a verbal or non-verbal way.

When the child displays that positive behavior, he or she gets a reinforcement, such as a high five or a favorite treat.

During The Forum’s visit prior to the grand opening, a young boy going through toilet training burst into the group room, exclaiming “I went potty!”

In return, he was able to spend a little time exploring on an iPad while in the clinic.

Children who are diagnosed with autism are allowed to spend up to 40 hours a week in the facility. There are after-school options as well.

Young adults undergoing treatment can learn life skills, such as cooking and cleaning, or spend time playing board games.

Germain said most parents of children with autism have a simple goal of getting out in the community more with their child.

“We work with them on that,” she said.