Business, Community, Latest News

Key Learning Autism Center unlocks the family in its therapy approach

You don’t know, until you do.

Your kid, we mean.

He never cooed as an infant and he never laughed as a toddler.

He wouldn’t make eye contact — and you could forget all those Fisher-Price toys with their flashing lights, clangs and peek-a-boo slapstick. No tolerance for that sensory onslaught, no ma’am.

He would only eat certain foods and his stomach was still racked. So were his sleep patterns.

There were Titanic tantrums and periods of just curling up, and drawing in.

You didn’t want to say it out loud, but you were pretty sure you knew: Autism.

“We hear stories like that all the time,” Haley Johnson said.

“Especially from moms,” she continued.

“By the time they get here, they’ve gotten their diagnosis and they’re actually relieved in a lot of ways. Because they know we’re going to work hard for their kids, so we can set them up for success.”

“Here,” is the Key Learning Autism Center in the Morgantown Industrial Park.

Johnson co-founded the center in 2019 with her friends and colleagues, Charlotte Arrington and Devin Parsons. All three are board-certified in the field.

The trio met at WVU, where they earned graduate degrees in special education, with an emphasis in applied behavioral analysis.

ABA, as the practice is known in the field, is a therapy that is proving effective for people diagnosed with autism as they work through their day-to-day.

Likening ABA therapy to training your new puppy, as a broad example, isn’t being glib or disrespectful to a Key Learning kid or his family, she said.

That’s because the therapy layers on the success with rewards — such as a book or a shopping outing as a gift — to reinforce the goals of the lesson at hand.

Positive reinforcement and routine mean everything under this roof, she said.

Two parents and a business plan

As many as 1 in 44 children in the U.S. are annually diagnosed with some degree of autism on its spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The numbers change all the time,” Johnson said. “It’s really hard to keep up.”

Key Learning Autism Center came to be, because Johnson’s parents wanted keep their kid in West Virginia, doing meaningful work she loved.

The center was founded in part with financial support from her mother, Sherry, and her father, Terry Ramsey.

“Yeah, Sherry and Terry,” her mother said. “We were a team.”

Terry, a mining engineer and mine supervisor, was getting ready to retire and he had plans, his wife said.

His retirement gift went the other way. It was an investment in love. He put his benefits into Key Learning Autism Center, which opened in 2019 in a location at Mountaineer Mall.

Sherry, who has a business degree, went to work, overseeing the operation.

“I didn’t know the first thing about medical billing or any of that,” she said, “but we all learned, and we all made it work.”

Work, it did. The center soon outgrew its mall space.

Earlier this month, it moved into its new location: A 5,000-square-foot facility in the Morgantown Industrial Park, with therapy rooms, a playground and special features such as padded floors (for safety) and a specially textured “sensory wall,” for soothing purposes.

Visit or the center’s Facebook page to learn about its services and operation.

No data shortages, though

In the meantime, what isn’t soothing, Ramsey said, is the lack of trained personnel and ABA facilities, to work with families.

Plus, WVU has since ended its special education, ABA-focused graduate degree program, she said.

“Kids study online or they go to California University (Pennsylvania),” she said. “It would be great if WVU could reinstate that degree.”

Less than 10% of West Virginia children affected by autism have access to ABA-sanctioned facilities, Ramsey added — and there are long wait-lists for the ones that are in the state, including Key Learning.

“It’s heartbreaking, not always being able to treat people,” she said.

Currently, Key Learning is offering therapy to 17 children, all ranging from to 2 to 8 years in age.

“We don’t go higher than that, because this truly individualized treatment,” Johnson said.

Data-driven, too, Arrington seconded. Notations are made regarding the sounds a nonverbal client might make — to the ways he might hold his fork at lunchtime.

“It’s that exacting and precise,” Arrington said, “because we’re building on behaviors.”

Of pianos and purpose

She and Johnson said that increased awareness of autism spectrum disorders has made it easier, at least on some early emotional levels, for parents as they begin their journeys with their children.

Still, there are misconceptions from popular culture, they said.

Autism isn’t about shrieking kids literally crashing into walls — or savants mastering piano concertos or mathematical equations.

Every child, and his family circumstances, are — well — different, they said.

That’s why the center works just as hard to foster its sense of family, a mother and daughter said.

“It’s hard not to get attached,” they said. “We’re with these kids for so many hours a week.”

The confines are inviting and airy, and Peter, everyone’s favorite therapy dog, has the run of the place when he isn’t working. He’s certified, too.

Look closely, and you just might spy a plaque on the wall, in honor of another family member.

Terry Ramsey died Sept. 7, 2020, of complications of a stroke.

His wife said she’s glad he got to enjoy the initial professional success of their daughter and her friends in a shared mission to help families at home.

“He’s a real presence in this building,” she said. “Every day.”

TWEET @DominionPostWV