MESA — In its short existence, Southwest Autism Center for Excellence has seen approximately 200 clients, and one of those is a young woman with Maricopa roots.

SACE is a program created by Southwest Behavioral & Health Services. It is the first of its kind in the area because it is an integrated, transdisciplinary center where those with autism can receive all the care they need in one place.

“Our idea was to encompass everything we do as an outpatient clinic, but enhance it to serve the lifespan of individuals with autism and give them service they probably wouldn’t receive elsewhere,” said Senior Vice President Steven Sheets.

The center is celebrating its six-month anniversary, and with that comes another important anniversary, which is Catherine Abbott’s six-month anniversary as an employee at the center. April 2 is also World Autism Awareness Day.

Abbott, who lived in Maricopa before moving to Phoenix, was diagnosed with autism in 2008 — the summer between her fifth and sixth grades. Her parents sought the guidance of Ramiro Guillen, M.D., who is the chief medical officer at SB&HS.

“At that age she was struggling with peer relationships,” Guillen said.

He said these struggles included Abbott being bullied because of her autism. Guillen continued to work with Abbott and provide the resources she needed. And at age 22, Abbott was able to achieve almost full independence.

At that time, Guillen and a team of other medical professionals were working to establish SACE. Guillen, who has seen Abbott grow with her autism, thought it would be a great opportunity to involve her in the center. So he offered her a job.

“For me, the day we opened the center and I offered her a job was one of the proudest days,” he said. “It felt so good being able to give back and offer her a job. It felt amazing.”

Currently, Abbott works at SACE as an office assistant, but as the program develops, she will start leading groups and organizing activities.

“It’s been different from other jobs,” she said. “There’s more communication and friendliness.”

Abbott said she enjoys this job because it helps her work on the areas of her life on which she needs to improve. But more than that, she gets to help others who are going through what she once went through.

“I like being helpful and reaching out to others, and letting them know there is someone to help you,” she said.

Reaching out to others is one of the areas the center wants to focus on as well. Guillen said there is a huge need that should be addressed — with 1 in 66 in the country diagnosed with autism and 1 in 64 in Arizona.

“It’s a common condition that we need to do a lot of research for and put the resources into it,” he said.

He said the organization plans to continue to grow the center, which includes bringing in medical students and resident psychiatrists to allow seeing more clients.

Sheets said their goal is to find what the holes are in the community and fill those with good, quality service. He said this is particularly important for a diagnosis like autism, where services tend to become fewer as a person transitions into adulthood.

“I think it filled an unmet need in the community,” he said. “Seeing the growth and the numbers we’re seeing shows its success, and it lives out our mission and values as an agency where we desire to seek solutions, create change and impact communities.


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