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Autism care network expands in Petoskey, ramps up hiring

North Arrow's newest therapy center is located at 910 Spring St. in Petoskey.
Michael Livingston
North Arrow's newest therapy center is located at 910 Spring St. in Petoskey. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR News)

As Emma Mitchell walks around North Arrow’s new treatment center, she envisions a colorful, welcoming space for her new clients.

“I would love a big play structure here or a rock wall-type situation,” she said. “Just something fun for them to get their energy out.”

While much of the space will be used for young children, North Arrow helps those with autism spectrum disorder into their early 20s.

The center’s new location at 910 Spring St. in Petoskey has only been open for about two weeks, but Mitchell said she’s already receiving increased inquiries from families.

The organization is a provider of applied behavior analysis, a type of data-based therapy.

“It’s a service that’s very much needed in this area,” Mitchell said. “To help these families and clients and get them to feel really confident going out in the community and reaching their goals… It's super rewarding.”

The move from a smaller space in downtown Petoskey was made out of necessity. Mitchell said the surge of new clients coupled with lack of parking meant they had outgrown the building.

The new space has free parking, bigger office space and a staff break room. Cubicles line the wall for individual therapy sessions and dozens of toys are packed up for younger clients.

“It’s definitely going to benefit the area with just being able to house more kiddos and serve more kiddos. That’s my hope,” Mitchell said.

As demand increases for ABA services, North Arrow will ramp up its hiring efforts to bring technicians to the area.

ABA technicians work one-on-one with clients, often multiple times a week, to create a personalized treatment plan. They work from the center but also visit clients at home or school and can be called in crisis situations.

According to 2020 data from Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 36 children have been identified with autism. That number has only increased in recent decades as symptoms become easier to identify.

Like other areas of healthcare, the number of ABA specialists have not risen to meet demand.

“Even before the pandemic, it’s always been difficult to attract quality behavioral technicians,” said Jonathan Timm, the founder and clinical executive of North Arrow.

A study published in the journal Psychiatric Services analyzed data from 2018 provided by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, which certifies ABA providers.

Researchers found ABA specialists were often taking on double the recommended caseload.

“Applied behavior analysis is a pretty niche industry,” Timm said. “A lot of people don’t even know it exists. The likelihood that we have somebody who has already been trained in this and has the credentials and experience to work with a kid with autism — it's just very rare in northern Michigan.”

That’s on top of pressures facing any industry, like housing, childcare and other things that are hard to come by in a rural area.

Timm said North Arrow often recruits from other fields and trains them to provide ABA services. The Petoskey center is fairing well with its current staff but the center is actively hiring additional technicians.

As an incentive, Timm said North Arrow is offering increased paid-time-off, apprenticeship opportunities and tuition reimbursement for those wanting to pursue a master’s degree in the ABA field.

With ABA becoming one of the most commonly recommended treatments for autism, Timm said he hopes more people will pursue it as a career path.

“I would love for the Northern Michigan community to embrace the idea that you shouldn’t pass judgment when you see a family out, and one of their kids is behaving in a certain way,” he said. “That's what these services are intended to be, a place to help families learn to deal with those behaviors in a more adaptive way.”

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Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.