SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Ryan Andolsek, 22, didn’t know he had autism spectrum disorder until last year.
He saw speech therapists and other physicians as a child, but no one ever picked up on the signs.
“It’s not a problem or anything, but I do have challenges — like dealing with people," Andolsek said, "and I fixate so much that I forget everything else.”
His challenges, however, haven’t held him back. Andolsek has attended school in Paris, the Salt Lake Community College Fashion Institute program and study abroad programs.
He is a dressmaker by profession and also composes piano music and paints often, including a slew of artwork to fill the walls of a new clinic to help people just like him.
University of Utah Health Care recently revamped one of its clinics, now called the Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic, to meet the growing needs of people from toddlers to adults with autism spectrum disorder — including 1 out of 47 children in Utah.
The revamped clinic at 650 Komas Drive, a sister clinic to University Health Care's well-established Neurobehavior H.O.M.E. Program, began building up its services this summer to provide more than just assessments.
“We’ve expanded its purpose,” said Deborah Bilder, medical director of the clinic since 2005. “Now in addition to diagnostic services, we’re expanding our groups significantly. We’re providing individual therapy and behavioral support.”
The clinic brought in psychologist Julia Connelly, who did Andolsek’s assessment a year ago, from University Hospital to be the clinical director.
Connelly's days are filled with autism evaluations, therapy and behavioral consultations, but she gets some help from a part-time staff — music, art and recreational therapists from University Hospital, as well as a social worker and graduate students who help run the groups.
If people can understand why they're having problems, I think we can help them a lot in just being happy.
–Julia Connelly, pychiatrist
“We’re really expanding the different social skills groups to provide a much broader array of groups that children and adults can participate in based on what their functioning level is and what they want to get out of it,” Bilder said. “And that just isn’t out there in the community.”
Connelly agreed that there simply aren’t enough services for the community’s needs, especially for individuals older than 5, and she hopes the new clinic will help fill the gap.
“We see a lot of anxious and depressed teenagers, just because they’ve always struggled, even if they are high-functioning,” Connelly said. “If people can understand why they’re having problems, I think we can help them a lot in just being happy.”
The clinic provides education about autism spectrum disorder to individuals and their families, and clinic staff work with teachers and parents to help children and adolescents function better at school.
People with autism spectrum disorder experience a range of difficulties, especially with social interaction. Many children can be overwhelmed by just walking into school because of sensory issues with loud noises, bright lights and how things feel.
Bilder explained it as “a developmental disability that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted interests in repetitive behaviors.”
Both Bilder and Connelly said autism spectrum disorder rates are rising, but some of it could be attributed to increased awareness and screening, the educational system giving special education services to children with autism spectrum disorder and less stringent criteria for diagnosis using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Regardless of the numbers, Bilder said it’s important for caregivers and parents to know what the signs of autism spectrum disorder are and seek out help for those who may have the disorder. More information can be found at firstsigns.org.