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Devoted Advocates
With Autism Acceptance Month arriving, South Jersey Magazine recognizes some of the local organizations committed to helping families access the services they need.

by Matt Cosentino

Reaching a 20-year milestone with one company in any field is always significant, but it’s extra special when that work is centered around something as impactful as helping individuals with autism. Michelle Habingreither, executive director for adult residential services at Bancroft, recently celebrated two decades with one of the area’s leaders in providing a continuum of care for that population as well as those with developmental disabilities and neurological impairments. Not surprisingly, she is still as enthused about her career now as the day she started.

“It means absolutely everything to me,” she says. “[I cherish] the relationships I have built over the years, and the individuals we support who I have been privileged to work with and see grow over that time. A lot of the people I support, I got when they were 21, and now seeing where they are and the change in them is really overwhelming. The staff is also one of my biggest passions, and seeing them grow and take higher positions and expand their scope is awesome.”

Dr. Casey Nottingham, senior clinical director at GentleCare Therapy, has also been in the field for quite some time—more than a decade, in fact. She was first introduced to applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy as a college student working in a preschool setting, and was inspired to learn more about the evidence-based approach that can help children with autism change certain behaviors and develop social and communication skills.

“It was something I fell in love with quickly, because I like working with kids,” Nottingham says. “It’s an area where every day there are new challenges, but there are also new successes, and seeing kids reach their potential and learn new skills is really exciting.”

Advocating for children and adults with autism is a year-long endeavor for people like Nottingham and Habingreither, but their work comes to the forefront every April, which is recognized as Autism Acceptance Month. This is a crucial time to bring awareness, foster inclusivity and point those affected by autism in the direction of resources available to them.

“Year round it is kind of our primary focus to bring more attention to the supports that are available in the state of New Jersey, and also supports that families can find online,” Nottingham says. “But when April does come around, there is such a national focus on autism and autism acceptance, and I do think it gives us a good opportunity to be able to get the word out more about the types of services that we provide in particular.”

GentleCare Therapy was founded in Pennsylvania in 2016 and just opened a location in Gibbsboro in January to meet what Nottingham notes is a strong demand for this type of assistance in South Jersey. The practice focuses mostly on the pediatric population and offers partial or full-day ABA therapy in its center, and will also provide it in homes and even during family outings to community events or extracurricular activities. In addition, GentleCare offers speech therapy and social skills programs in its center and soon hopes to have occupational therapy as an option.

It also hosts a free monthly workshop series available to parents, teachers or anyone else in the community about a range of topics related to autism, autism support and autism therapies. These gatherings can be attended in person or virtually, and are especially beneficial to those who are navigating the process for the first time to become informed and to build relationships with other families experiencing similar circumstances.

Overall, GentleCare just hopes to act as a resource for South Jersey, and even in cases where it can’t specifically cater to a client’s needs, it will refer them to other area providers.

“I think that need is everywhere, but especially in New Jersey there are so many families that are really looking for some kind of support services for their kids and are coming into contact with waiting lists of a couple of months, maybe up to a year or a year and a half, to get services,” Nottingham says. “We know that at a young age after kids are getting a diagnosis, it really is important to get those services as soon as possible. So we definitely saw a need in South Jersey to provide more of those supports.”

While GentleCare focuses mostly on young children, Habingreither points out that her organization has programs starting with early education for youngsters all the way up to the Flicker Residences, a 36-bed facility for the older population. “What I love about Bancroft is that whole continuum of care: You could be there your whole life,” she says.

She oversees group homes and apartment programs throughout South Jersey for adults with autism. Some need constant support and receive 24/7 staff assistance, while others have more independence, are active in the community and hold jobs, with help when needed to stay on track. Each resident has a private bedroom with access to a fully stocked kitchen, a bathroom and common areas for relaxation, and they may engage in activities with other residents or individually.

Because Bancroft is so expansive, Habingreither says, they are usually able to pair residents up with others who are around the same age and have similar interests. And while some families are reluctant at first, most learn to appreciate the benefits.

“One of the nice things about having your loved one in a residential home is when you visit, you get the best of them,” Habingreither says. “You’re no longer working on toileting or whatever help they need, you’re just spending time with them and get to be in that moment. I think that takes a lot of pressure off families, and I think for the people who we support, there’s a sense of pride that they’ve living with other people and they’re out in the community all the time, not with their family.”

Having that kind of impact, not just during Autism Acceptance Month but also throughout the year, makes Habingreither proud of the team she has committed her career to.

“I think this organization has been able to touch so many lives,” she says. “We have over 3,000 people who work here, and they really enjoy making a difference in the lives of people with autism or any other disability that we serve. They want what’s best for them and work their hardest to achieve it. We see goals being met left and right, and that’s always super motivating for us and for the families that we support as well.”

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 12 (March 2023)

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