Wesley Spectrum spreads autism awareness in Pittsburgh

The "pieces of hope" symbolize the complexity of autism and April is autism awareness month. Jordan Mondell | Layout Editor

Massive lava lamps and abstract-colored patterns projected on the walls illuminate Wesley Spectrum’s “sensory room,” where children lounge in cozy chairs and allow this visual stimulation to center their minds.

The “sensory room,” according to Kate Pompa, the Wesley Spectrum director of autism services, is a place where children on the autism spectrum can focus on something other than their own thoughts.

“Kids that are overly anxious are directed to this room,” Pompa said. “The purpose is to teach mindfulness techniques that they can apply to any stressful situation.”

This is just one of many services for children with autism provided by Wesley, a nonprofit organization founded in 1965 that works with distressed families, foster kids and individuals with autism. Along with in-home therapies and school services, the organization offers specialized programs for children with autism at its locations in Wexford, Bridgeville and Penn Hills.

Michelle Sloane, the director of public policy and strategy at Wesley, estimates the organization services a total of 5,800 children and adults in and around Allegheny County. The group helps teach individuals about mental health, drugs and alcohol, family therapy, education and foster care.

“We have a variety of services where the individuals can come on site or we can go into the home or the community,” Sloane said.

Wesley Spectrum sites — the buildings where the institution hosts many of its autism-specialized programs — resemble typical public elementary schools. A visitor might find children in one of several brightly colored rooms, engaging in crafts or participating in one of the organization’s educational and therapeutic programs.

According to Nicole Gannon, the clinical site manager for the Wexford location, the organization’s services include programs like Wonder Kids, which has made a noticeable difference in helping those on the autism spectrum develop social skills.

“We’ve had quite a few kids that came here with really poor social skills,” Gannon said. “They didn’t really have friends at school — they didn’t know how to make friends or have conversations — and now some of them are going to birthday parties, or are even on sports teams.”

Beyond children, Wesley also offers services to teens who can be seen lounging at the Wexford site’s music room and strumming guitars as a creative outlet and means of therapy. According to Sloane, the Creative Arts program has even produced two rock bands — Flying Sock Monkeys and Snow Phantoms.

[The bands] are quite popular, they put on shows for other clients and everything,” Sloane said.

Wesley also runs several outpatient support groups for people of all ages. Transition aged youth, ages 16 and up, often attend outpatient groups in the Healthy Relationships Curriculum — where clients learn about self-care, sexual development and maintaining relationships. A licensed therapist leads the groups, and teaches participants socialization skills.

“Each child has individual socialization goals,” Pompa said. “One goal might be to talk to a friend, for example. We develop a treatment plan catered specifically to every child’s needs.”

While the organization services over 500 children, teens and adults, they also play an active role in educating the community about autism awareness. Earlier this month, Panera sold cookies shaped as blue puzzle pieces — an international symbol of autism — to raise money for Wesley’s services.

The “pieces of hope” cookies symbolize the complexity of autism and the diversity of the people affected by it. According to Gannon, Wesley is trying to do what few other organizations have done in addressing the individual needs of each child on the autism spectrum through its programs.

“Wesley found there was a gap in available services and treatment, specifically for kids on the spectrum,” Gannon said. “Wesley seeks to fill that gap.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Wesley serves 58,000 people. The correct number is 5,800. Additionally, the article said the Healthy Relationships Curriculum is for ages 12 and up. The correct age is 16 and up. The article has been updated to reflect these changes. The Pitt News regrets these errors.

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