Gov. Mike Parson visited West Plains on Tuesday to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the building that will permanently house an existing autism student support program at Missouri State University-West Plains.
A surprise came during the ceremony when it was announced the program, formerly named Autism Support Can Empower New Directions (A.S.C.E.N.D.), will now be named the TJ Swift House A.S.C.E.N.D. Program.
Tracey Hollis, representing TJ Swift House as an owner of the longstanding developmental disability services provider, spoke of the involvement she and her children have had in the program and interest in providing autism support services for students who are capable of completing college coursework, but might need unique guidance and extra help in meeting their goals.
Hollis, her son Dr. Nate Swift and his wife Erin, and Hollis’ daughter Keely Swift-Gale and husband Dylan Gale, have decades of experience in assisting people with developmental disabilities, and the family has given input into the program with specific clients in mind.
"A person with a diagnosis still has many talents and gifts they can bring to a workplace or a volunteer program,” Hollis said. “They can be a viable resource in the community.”
The building, slated to open its doors in January 2025, will be called the Center for Autism and Neurodiversity. The bulk of project funding, $7.5 million, was provided by legislation supported by 33rd District State Sen. Karla Eslinger, 154th District State Rep. David Evans and 155th District State Rep. Travis Smith, signed into law by Parson in June 2022.
An additional $2.5 million was provided through the Missouri State University President's Enhancement Fund, and $500,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funding was approved by Howell County Commission members.
A financial gift from the Philanthropic Friends Giving Circle will make possible the development and upkeep of a sensory garden adjacent to the new center, and it will be named the Philanthropic Friends Giving Circle Sensory Garden.
The roughly 9,300-square-foot building project will cost $10.5 million total, and has been specifically designed for those on the autism spectrum, with indirect lighting that minimizes shadows and glare; a variety of textures on carpet, walls and furniture; sound-absorbing materials; and "break out" rooms designed to calm overstimulation.
It will also house a classroom for students seeking a degree through a new program in education with an emphasis in autism.
Parson praised the efforts of all involved and spoke of the positive impact the program will have on today's students and the future of Missouri's workforce by supporting the mental health of autistic individuals and helping them reach their potential in their careers through their education.
"This will fix a problem on the front end, so we can do a better job helping people succeed in the workforce. We want to talk about people's abilities, not their disabilities," he added. "It all starts with education and jobs."