When an autism clinic opened in Alexandria in 2018, it had room for three children.

Just a year later, the clinic has expanded into a 10,000-square-foot space near the airport, employs about 25, sees 18 children, and has a waiting list of more than 20, said Coreen Schoep, clinical manager for Solutions Behavioral Healthcare Professionals.

The clinic opening comes at a time when autism diagnoses are exploding, with 1 in 42 Minnesota children on the autism spectrum.

“We waited a long time to get in,” said Rita Scholten, an Alexandria mother of three whose younger son, Will, 8, began attending the clinic this fall. “It was a prayer answered.”

Solutions’ clinic, called Autism Innovation in Motion, works with children ages 2 to 18, and parents drive in from as far as an hour and a half away for their services, Schoep said.

The business plans to hire more staff members, and will eventually be able to work with 40-50 kids, Schoep said. Every child is paired with one staff member.

The clinic looks something like a school, with desks, a round mat for circle time, and puzzles and games. However, it is a medical facility and is funded through the state’s Early Intensive Developmental and Behavioral Intervention Benefit, a Medicaid program that began in 2015.

The state will spend about $21 million on that program this year, said Department of Human Services Disability Services Director Alex Bartolic.

He called the funding “a critical service” for children who need it and said that last year, about 1,500 people under age 21 benefited.

“It has the potential to provide savings in the long run,” he said. “We need the service to expand so it is available to every child in the state who needs it. Because it is a new benefit, we are excited to see new providers who will help us meet this goal.”

Learning to learn

At the clinic, a teacher might read children a story, but the story is not the point; learning to sit quietly in a classroom, keep their hands to themselves and listen is the point.

“This whole program is about teaching them skills so they integrate back into their everyday lives and the community,” Schoep said.

Children develop new skills through repetition, she said. At the clinic, children who scream or run away from their parents in public might practice the steps involved in going out, starting with hand holding and getting into a vehicle. Children who don’t speak might learn to communicate through devices and pictures. Parents also learn how to work with their autistic children.

As a reward for working hard, children get to jump in a bounce house the clinic just added.

During the clinic’s grand opening, a young man with autism jumped and squealed with glee when he spied the bounce house.

Typically, children come to the clinic for six months to two years, Schoep said. Some might come all day, every day, while others come for half days.

“I have parents who say, ‘I just want them to say ‘Mom.’ I want them to say ‘Dad,’” she said.

The rates of children with autism have been steadily climbing in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In 2000, one in 150 kids nationally was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Just 14 years later, one in 59 kids was diagnosed.

In Minnesota, that rate is even higher, with one in 42 children diagnosed with autism, according to the Minnesota-Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network at the University of Minnesota.

Nobody knows why those numbers are going up, although the CDC says they probably reflect a combination of a broader definition of autism and actual increases.

Scholten said Will now uses more sign language, follows directions better and is calmer in public.

“It has meant a lot to us,” she said. “He is growing in positive ways.”