Tim O’Donovan, left, Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s Dr. Matt Siegel, Ryan O’Donovan and Wendi O’Donovan. The O’Donovans say the new Center for Excellence in Autism and Developmental Disorders will provide much needed services for their son, Ryan, 25. Contributed / Maine Behavioral Healthcare

A new autism center in Westbrook will be “life changing” for Wendi O’Donovan of Falmouth and her son, Ryan, 25, who has aged out of other available programs.

O’Donovan said that since Ryan turned 20 and was no longer qualified for school-associated programs, finding care for him has been difficult and at times traumatizing.

“We didn’t qualify for services, so we jumped off into the abyss,” O’Donovan said.

The Center for Excellence for Autism and Developmental Disorders, to be built next to Spring Harbor Hospital on the Portland/Westbrook line, will serve adults and children under 5, two underserved populations. File photo

With just $650,000 to go, Maine Behavioral Healthcare is closing in on its $15 million fundraising goal for the Center for Excellence in Autism and Developmental Disorders, with hopes of opening it in August or early fall. The center, now under construction on Andover Road near the Portland line, will provide clinical and day treatment services for up to 800 adults and children under age 5, according to Dr. Matthew Siegel, vice president of Medical Affairs, Autism and Developmental Disorders Services.

“As a mom of an adult child with significant special ed needs,” O’Donovan said,  “this is going to be life-changing.”

Like O’Donovan, many other parents in the state have trouble finding services for their children once they grow too old for programs aimed at youth, Siegel said. Parents, used to having all the resources they need when their kids are in school, call it “falling off the cliff,” he said, or in O’Donovan’s case, the “abyss.”

O’Donovan said the lack of available care has created unsafe situations for her and her family. Ryan has had to be hospitalized after breakdowns that she said could have been avoided or less severe with proper care over time.

Adults with developmental disabilities often get “stuck in emergency rooms because of a behavioral health crisis,” Siegel said.

“There is nowhere to go and no one to treat them, so they sit in the emergency room and go home or get sent to an out-of-state residential facility,” he said. “Part of the reason that happens is they don’t have good access to basic behavioral health care so things get worse and worse until it is a crisis.”

People with developmental disabilities are four times more likely to have another diagnosis, Siegel said. Ryan also has an anxiety disorder, but the multiple diagnoses can be wide ranging.

The pandemic has only made the care situation more dire, shutting down some resources and growing the waiting lists of those operating. The wait list for the developmental disorders unit at Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, for example, has gone from none to three pre-pandemic to 10-15 now.

“This is our highest level of care for this population and indicates the extreme stress and need,” said MBH Communication & Public Affairs Manager Valerie Compagna.

About 40,000 Maine residents, or one in 54, are on the autism spectrum, Siegel said.

Social workers, speech therapists and case managers are needed for the adults, said O’Donovan, who is the co-chairperson of the fundraising campaign, and that’s what the new center will provide.

She has “patched together” a team of doctors for Ryan, she said, but that still leaves gaps and is time-consuming when paired with other family responsibilities and her work in property management.

“It can be tiring, but you can’t burn out,” she said. “This is my son.”

Maine Behavioral Healthcare will double its workforce to 100 with the new 28,000-square-foot center, Siegel said.

It hopes to raise the remaining $650,000 needed by the end of the summer. The campaign has raised over $6.65 million, with matching donations from parent company MaineHealth rounding out the other half of the $15 million total.

O’Donovan, whose hope for Ryan is that he will become more independent and hold a job,  said she “feels lucky” that the center will be so close to her home in Falmouth. She is excited for Ryan that he will be able to participate in structured programming.

“It causes Ryan a lot more trauma without the organization,” O’Donovan said. 

Donations can be made at 26825.thankyou4caring.org/Giving.

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