News & Media

Autism Unit at EARS sees growth and changes

08/02/2017 The Ephrata Review By Kevin Frey

Two years after opening Lancaster County’s first adult services unit, specifically for consumers diagnosed with autism, Ephrata Area Rehab Services (EARS) finds itself at a crossroads.

The program has doubled in size from 13 to 26 clients and is looking at new regulations in 2019 which will govern how EARS complies with government oversight.

“I would say that all of our folks are a little different,” explained autism program specialist Andrew Ebersole when asked what the general public doesn’t know. “Some are non-verbal, but can understand what you are saying. Others are very verbal and can chat your ear off, but are not socializing appropriately.”

Ebersole started at EARS in October of 2015, following six years working with students in the school system.

“I started doing job training with the I-U 13,” he said. “My niche again was some of the more intense folks with autism. I got to see the whole vocational side of things for about two and a half years.”

That vocational training will be a must-have when the regulations change, something that EARS recognized when they needed a new autism specialist after just four months at the new Chestnut Street location.

“It was such a natural fit,” added Ebersole. “Luckily, EARS felt the same way. When I came through the building, I was sold. I had a lot of impact on how we were going to manage it, which was appealing to me.”

Although specific to the autism unit, Ebersole reports to the rehab director, who supervises other programs as well. As a member of the management team, he considers himself a hybrid. His charges are 21 and older.

“This is definitely adult services,” Ebersole said. “As they get closer to what we call transitional age (typically 14) we start to plan for after graduation.”

When EARS is the next step of support, money becomes an issue.

“That’s when they would need a funding source in place,” Ebersole said. “The district is no longer responsible. How do we fund this?”

Most of the clients obtain their funding from two primary sources. The first is Personal Family Directed Services (PFDS), which is limited to $30,000 per person. The second is unlimited and is directed by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

“The Consolidated Waiver Funding (CWF) is unlimited, but it needs to be justified,” Ebersole said. “There is a case manager who is keeping an eye on that individual’s budget. CWF is for an individual with special needs. Perhaps someone who lost their family members and would need a group home.”

“There is another organization. It’s a government entity,” said Ebersole. “The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR). For someone to come to EARS, they need to go through the OVR’s screening process. They want to make sure that the individuals would not be able to be competitively employed.”

That competitive employment is much of the direction the new federal and state regulations will take in two years.

“In theory, I truly think this is going in the right direction,” Ebersole said. “I think we should get our folks out in the community more. I think it’s going to be beneficial, especially for the autism unit.”

The new regulations are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

“Some similar companies like ours are not going to be here,” said Ebersole. “They see these adaptations and they don’t know if they can do it. And they are getting out.”

For quite some time, the regulations shift has been the topic of discussion at management team meetings. With the next fiscal year beginning in July, EARS is going to start adapting to the new regulations.

“It’s a big, ambitious situation to tackle,” explained Ebersole. “We want to be prepared so that we’re not just turning the whole operation upside-down.”

“They just want to see these folks out in the community, being given a fair shot at social integration,” Ebersole said. “In theory, they will learn from those situations and be more employable down the road.”

That road is described on the EARS website as “Pathways.” The first four letters of the heading are an acronym: Progress, Ability, Training, and Hope.

Independence has always been the goal at EARS. The autism program is no different.

“One example of that is there are three gentlemen who live in the same residence,” Ebersole said. “Two of them are picked up by the house staff and one rides public transportation home. That makes him more independent. He also beats them home, which gives him alone time. That’s important to him.”

Members of the autism unit have the same opportunity to earn a paycheck by working on the EARS production floor.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve successfully transitioned a few individuals out there,” he said. “I look at that as a success story. Some of our folks may never be out on the production floor, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying.”

When the new regulations become official, EARS and the autism unit will need to reach out for help to comply and succeed.

“It needs to be community partners that are willing to give our workforce a shot,” said Ebersole. “We need places to go. We want these to be learning experiences.”

As to future growth, Ebersole admits to the need to take the sure and steady approach.

“Our budget dictates how we’re going to approach this,” he said. “We’ll start chipping away as we get one more vehicle, then hire on more staff to get these folks out in the community.”

As the oversight regulations move forward, EARS and the autism unit will continue with their mission in mind.

“Unless we’re pushing these folks, we’re not going to see growth,” Ebersole said. “We don’t always want the world to adapt to them. I want them to be able to adapt to the world. The real world is tough. I don’t think we should be holding these folks’ hands through the process either.”

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