Lois Cairns of Ahwatukee is marking the 30th anniversary of her effort to help autistic children.

In 1995, Lori Cairns’ 2-year-old son, James, was diagnosed with autism.

Their second child, she and her then-husband Jim had noticed, seemed quieter than his older sister, was distracted and avoided eye contact.

Because he showed low signs of development and the speech level of a 9-month old, doctors predicted he would be institutionalized by his late teens.

At the time, few resources were available to children who were said to be on the newly renamed autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The couple was advised to make their son comfortable in his room because that is where he’d stay for the coming years.  

They didn’t agree with the physician’s assessment.

Realizing they wanted their son to have access to more services and developmental assistance, Cairns decided to do something.

She left her decade-long career in ophthalmic technology and founded Hope Group Arizona.

Today, Hope Group Arizona offers hundreds of families throughout the state support in many different ways, including evaluations, respite care, navigation through the complex maze of autism treatment providers and tapping into state and local assistance.

Since 2007, Hope Group has grown to serve the state from two offices, one in Ahwatukee, where Cairns resides, and the other in Tucson.

From five employees, Cairn’s staff now numbers nearly 500, offering behavioral health services to those diagnosed with developmental and neurological disorders including those affected by autism spectrum disorder.

The company, of which Cairns is both founder and owner, has doubled clinical services since 2014, and now serves more than 400 families annually.

“I was just a mom who wanted to help my son,” said Cairns, recalling how she became increasingly involved in learning more about her son’s diagnosis.

“When James was diagnosed, one in 10,000 children were said to be autistic,” said Cairns. “Now it’s one in 68,” a statistic verified by the Center for Disease Control, 2014.

As various reports worldwide indicate, the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder manifestations like Asperger’s continues to rise.

The Autism Society webpage paints a grim picture: More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder, with the prevalence of autism in U.S. children increasing by 119 percent from 2000 to 2010.

“Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability,” the site autism-society.org stated.

Cairns said there are actually three diagnoses that now fall under autism:  classical autism, asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Though differing slightly, she said, they all have similar effects on learning, behavior and relationships.

“Absolutely, early intervention is the key,” said Cairns. “In 1997. there wasn’t much available. We said, ‘This is the way our child is, and we’re going to love him.’ But I knew we could help him, too.”

One of the many services Hope Group offers is one dear to Cairn’s heart: Comprehensive early intervention. This allows Hope Group’s specially trained professionals to work with families, evaluating and implementing individualized treatment programs and developing goals.  

Family members actively participate in their child’s one-on-one treatment in the home. As the child gains new skills, the program is expanded into the community and school setting, if applicable.

The Hope Group webpage describes how this is accomplished:

“Through the principles of applied behavior analysis, appropriate behaviors are taught using a combination of verbal behavior approaches, discrete trial teaching and natural environment teaching.

“Treatment focuses on behavior support that allows children to achieve maximum potential in language and communication; social skills and play, pre-academic skills and daily living activities,” it states.

Hope Group also offers specialized services for children who suffer from destructive behaviors, aggression or self-injury.

“I believe all children deserve the opportunity to learn and become a valuable part of our community, and that is what my employees strive for in treatment and care,” said Cairn, adding:

“Although there is no cure, some adults with ASD that received intensive intervention while they were young, are now able to live and work independently with little support needed.”

She proudly points to her son James, now 24, who lives on his own after graduating from Horizon Charter High School.

“It was great watching him grow up and mature,” she said proudly. “Autism is treatable, and my son is living proof. I give him a lot of credit; it wasn’t easy.”

Services for adults and young adults transitioning into adulthood are also available, including social skills classes, psychological assistance, vocational help and guidance, and legal resources.

She said in the last 30 years operating Hope Group, she and her staff have “seen firsthand” how families can help their children learn through the use of applied behavior analysis.

One particular change in the past decades helpful to Arizona families is the insurance companies who have made it easier to access services and assistance for those ASD.

“Arizona was an early adopter of the insurance mandate in 2009 for autism services, meaning families can now use their insurance for autism-related services instead of relying just on the state.

“This allows us to be able to offer more services and take some of the burden off the state,” she said. “Our team of licensed mental health providers are in network with most insurance carriers to provide diagnostic evaluations, independent educational evaluations, developmental assessments and parent support.”

In 2008, Cairns partnered with other Arizona business leaders to create The Arizona Autism Coalition, a nonprofit that aims to improve lives by sharing resources and affecting autism systems reform through statewide collaboration and advocacy.

Cairns and her family were featured in a 2013 documentary, “Be With Me: A Family’s Autism Journey,” which won numerous awards.

Directed by Michael Terrill and produced by Cairns, the documentary follows the family from diagnosis to the teenage years. It is at times brutally honest, but its message is one of hope. Hope, she said, for others who are stunned to hear the autism diagnosis and possibly lose heart.

“The reaction to the documentary has been mixed, some good, some not as good as to be expected. However, I love knowing that I have touched families in a positive way,” said Cairns.

For the past months, Cairns has created a partnership with Gilbert’s Not Your Typical Deli. The full-service delicatessen and bakery showcases local products from artisans, bakers and other culinary professionals while creating jobs for those with developmental disabilities.

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