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Sacred Heart Hospital Takes First Step to Establish Center for Autism

Posted: 2/11/2008

Sacred Heart Hospital has announced plans to create an autism services program in Pensacola to improve assessment and intervention services for children with autism-related disorders and to create new support services for parents and teachers.

“The vision of Sacred Heart is to create a regional autism center that will build upon existing programs,” said Debbie Bostic, president of Sacred Heart Hospital. “We’ve made a commitment to expand diagnostic and treatment services for children with autism. We also aim to establish new research partnerships, improve family education services, and raise the level of awareness in our community through training and education services.”

Quint and Rishy Studer of Gulf Breeze have donated $300,000 to the Sacred Heart Foundation to recruit and hire an Autism Center director for the first three years of the program.

“The Studers’ generosity and desire to make a difference for children, joined with Sacred Heart Hospital’s leadership and dedication to our community, will create a cultural shift in meeting the needs of those touched by autism,” said Susan Byram, executive director of the Autism Society of the Panhandle (ASP).  “This position is the first step toward a center to coordinate care for those with autism and it will benefit our entire region. As the director of ASP and as a parent, I am deeply grateful to everyone involved in this effort and am so proud to live in this generous community.”

The new program will collaborate with existing autism services based in Pensacola to better address the needs of families with autistic children.  Existing services for autistic children include programs of the Autism Society of the Panhandle, Children’s Medical Services, the Florida State University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), the Early Steps Program at Sacred Heart Hospital, the University of West Florida, and local school districts.

One in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. It is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to severe.

The behavioral therapies as well as speech and occupational therapies used to treat autism are most effective when it begins before age 3, when a child’s brain is more amenable to behavior change. Sacred Heart already offers a solid foundation from which to build a center for autism. The hospital’s Ninth Avenue campus already houses an early intervention program dedicated to early detection and treatment of developmental problems in children from birth to age 3. In addition, Children’s Medical Services, located near Sacred Heart, is in the process of implementing an autism clinic to help diagnose young children. Other autism program components include screening in conjunction with CARD and the Autism Society’s summer camp program in conjunction with the local school districts. 

For more information, please contact Joy McAfee of the Development Evaluation and Intervention program at Sacred Heart Hospital, 416-7657 or Susan Byram of the Autism Society at 450-0656. For information about autism, go to


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