Mission for Educating Citizens with Autism
In 1996 the mother of a young boy with autism approached the Executive Director of the Devereux Kanner Center, located in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, with the idea of starting a small, center-based day school employing the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. To support this project, a group of committed volunteers founded Mission for Educating Children with Autism (MECA) in 1997. MECA became an integral partner with the Devereux Foundation to develop an Applied Behavior Analysis school, which was to be the first of its kind in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
In 1998, MECA and Devereux opened the doors of Devereux Childhood Autism Research and Educational Services (CARES) to widespread acclaim within the autism community. Fundraising efforts by MECA provided an initial capital contribution of over $100,000. MECA continued to support the school over its nine-year partnership with Devereux, and today CARES remains a state-of-the-science program, using proactive strategies, and offering a menu of programs to ensure age-appropriate and meaningful instruction to its young learners with autism.
In the years that followed the opening of the CARES program, MECA enlarged upon its mission. Determined to implement and support instructional, educational, and community programs for people with autism, MECA facilitated community programs to raise autism awareness, presented to school districts, presided at autism conferences, staged fundraisers, and lobbied local and federal governments for legislative recognition of, and funding for, the disorder. During this time MECA’s board members were frequently sought out by other organizations for their expertise in the area of autism. Today, MECA board members hold positions on the boards of such prestigious national autism organizations as The Organization for Autism Research (OAR), Autism Living and Working (ALAW), and Chester County Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (CC MH/MR). MECA’s president holds a gubernatorial appointment to the Governor’s Cabinet and serves on the Advisory Council for Persons with Disabilities in Pennsylvania.
In early 2005, MECA recognized the need for specialized programming for adolescents with autism. It established PAAL “Preparing Adolescents for Adult Life” for students with moderate to severe autism, ages 14 through 21, in September of 2006. For this venture MECA partnered with the Chester County Intermediate Unit. From its inception, the PAAL Program has been a unique specialty secondary educational program that provides intense instruction within the community. Learners with autism learn most efficiently from the naturally-occurring “cues” in the environment, and require numerous opportunities to practice their skills. For this reason, PAAL utilizes the innovative approach of drawing upon the community as a “classroom.” PAAL links members of the general public with its students during recreation, life-skills training, job training, and education. PAAL maintains classroom facilities in the heart of the business district of the Borough of Downingtown. MECA’s “Life Skills” house is located in a residential neighborhood within walking distance of its classroom facilities. In 2008, MECA made the decision to operate PAAL independently of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, and moved its headquarters to 115 Washington Avenue in Downingtown.
In the spring of 2009, MECA launched ACE “Adult Competency and Education” to provide forward, proactive programming for adults with autism.
MECA is currently developing another new division, “Bridges” to provide consultative services for persons with autism. The establishment of Bridges will allow MECA to provide case management services that are particularly tailored to the needs of people with autism and their families.