Wolff & Phan Autism Center looks to give children with autism a boost

Kim Phan Wolff sees America as a land of freedom and opportunity. But some, particularly those with disabilities, get lost due to systemic inequities.  She is looking to change that, one child at a time. Wolff, 36, of Medina, recently opened the Wolff & Phan Autism Center, or Wolff PAC, […]

Kim Phan Wolff sees America as a land of freedom and opportunity. But some, particularly those with disabilities, get lost due to systemic inequities. 

She is looking to change that, one child at a time.

Wolff, 36, of Medina, recently opened the Wolff & Phan Autism Center, or Wolff PAC, which aims to help children on the autism spectrum.  

The more than 6,000-square-foot building in Fairlawn includes interactive play areas, a gym, a cafeteria, a miniature city hallway setup and more.

The center even has a dentist’s chair, donated by Keystone Pediatric Dentistry.

“Kids struggle with the dentist, at the doctor’s office,” Wolff explained “So we have the chair so we can normalize that experience of sitting in the dentist’s chair. Kids can sit in it, they can lay down in the chair. It helps build their tolerance.”

The mini city hallway setup was created to help enforce teaching about safety, Wolff said.

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Autism spectrum disorder is “is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The spectrum can include several conditions, such as autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome.

“A lot of kids with autism have rigid play and struggle with interactive play,” said Wolff, who serves as the center’s CEO and director of clinical services. “We teach and work with that.”

Experts say early intervention is critical for kids with autism

Laurie Cramer, the executive director of the Autism Society of Greater Akron, said she welcomes the addition of the new Fairlawn facility.

“We are fortunate that access to therapy centers has grown significantly in Northeast Ohio since the state legislature passed a law in 2014 requiring health insurers to cover Applied Behavioral Analysis and other therapies,” Cramer said. “Prior to the change in law, the only parents who had access to this level of early intervention were the ones who could afford to pay for it, leaving many children behind.”

An average of one out of 44 children are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, Wolff said. 

Wolff is a board-certified behavior analyst, a health care professional who studies  patient’s behavior and creates plans to improve or change problematic behaviors. 

She said she has worked with children on the autism spectrum since 2005 and has served as a consultant in several states.

“I am strong advocate for our kids with autism,” she said. “Parents are the biggest advocates but even parents sometimes need support. Kids thrive when they have a strong support system, and that includes the people in the community. We are proud to be a part of the autism community.” 

Cramer agreed that early intervention is crucial.

“Studies show that intensive early intervention – such as Applied Behavioral Analysis – is critical for children with autism,” Cramer said. “Improving IQ, language ability, and social interactions, all building blocks for learning. In the long-term, learned skills support living as independently as possible, working, post-secondary education and the ability to navigate and thrive in our community, just like everyone else.”

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Business ownership runs in the Wolff family

The concept of running a small business is not a new one for the Wolff family. Wolff’s husband, Corey, is a part of The Wolff Bros. Supply Inc., a third-generation family business headquartered in Medina that sells plumbing, electrical and HVAC products.

It was her husband’s family and family business that drew them back to the area three years ago after he was finished at West Point. Corey Wolff serves as the chief financial officer for the Wolff and Phan Autism Center.

Wolff said her husband was the one who encouraged her to start the autism center and has supported her efforts.

“Most of my career has been building capacity for kids with autism,” she said. “After living here for a couple of years, I felt more grounded. I spent a decade of consulting for others, and I felt it was time to start my own business.”

Working with children on the autism spectrum has been a way for her to give back to the community, Wolff said. Both her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. Her father left Vietnam in the mid-’70s, traveling with his brother on a raft. They first wound up in the Philippines, where they stayed for a time. Her father eventually immigrated to Florida and went into the shrimping business.

Wolff’s mother came to the United States through the refugee act, so it was “a bit of an easier travel for her.” Her parents eventually met in Boston, where Wolff grew up. 

“I’m the first born,” she said. “My parents came here for better opportunities in a free world.”

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Needs for children with disabilities not always addressed

There are “a lot of needs in the United States,” Wolff said. “There isn’t enough support for families with children with autism. I’m concerned about the inequities for children with disabilities, and there’s not enough study for autism.”

Ohio’s laws changed in recent years to make health insurance pay for the therapies, but there are still limitations. 

“I think we were the 45th state to pass this type of law,” Cramer said. “Sadly, our state legislature capped the age that individuals with autism have access to learning and therapy to the age of 14.”

This has impacted her own son, who is now 21, Cramer said. 

“We no longer have access to ABA,” she said. “He’s out of school, so he’s lost his entire learning apparatus. People can go bankrupt because of this. My son thrived on ABA. It breaks things in small steps. After that, they are no longer required to cover these important learning tools.”

Several other states have since removed similar age caps.

“Learning does not stop at the age of 14,” she said. “These discriminatory practices by health insurers has had a negative impact on individuals with autism for many years in our state and unfortunately, we have not been able to get laws passed to end it.”

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Consistency with therapy and treatment are critical, Wolff said.

“It’s like working out,” she said. “You can’t just go to the gym once a month and expect to see results. You have to be focused. That’s what I try to get people to understand.”

Ideally, it’s best to have a diagnosis and start therapy as soon as possible — definitely before the child reaches school age, Wolff said. Currently, she has children as young as 22 months, and with today’s technology, children can be diagnosed at even younger ages.

Wolff said there is no upper age limit for her center; the criteria is more of the facility can adequately and safely meet the needs of the child. A child needing intensive care may need anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week of therapy; a child “who is higher functioning” may need about six to 10 hours. 

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Working with children on the autism spectrum not initial career choice

Wolff said that she knew she wanted to go into a medical field where she could work with children.

Wolff’s advisor recommended that she volunteer for a facility that worked in applied behavioral analysis.

“I remember the owners approached me afterwards, after my time volunteering, and said, ‘If you want, you can come back, you have a job here,'” Wolff said.

At first, Wolff said she dismissed the idea, intent on pursuing her original goals to become a pediatrician or neonatal specialist. However, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in ABA and eventually did accept that job offer. Eventually, she decided to wanted to work full-time with children on the autism spectrum.

When planning her own clinic, Wolff said she “designed a space that I would want to see as a parent, if I had the opportunity.” She added that her three children, ages 2,3 and 5, loved to visit her work.

“That’s my cue that I designed a good space,” she said.

Wolff and Phan Autism Center LLC is at 3505 Embassy Parkway, Suite 100. For details, call 330-271-6107 or visit www.wpautismcenter.com online. 

Reporter April Helms can be reached at [email protected]

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