EXPANDING: Debra Vines, the founder of The Answer, Inc., which will offer services at The Loretto Hospital in Chicago come April. | IGOR STUDENKOV/Contributor

A non-profit based in Proviso Township that supports people with autism spectrum disorder and their families, is expanding its service footprint to include the West Side.

During an open house event held Feb. 21 at The Loretto Hospital in Chicago, The Answer, Inc. announced that it plans to establish a support group for families of children with autism. Starting in April, the group will meet at the hospital every third Monday of the month.

Maywood resident Debra Vines, who co-founded the organization with her late husband, James Harlan, said that the data shows a clear need for autism services in Chicago’s Austin community — where, like many minority communities, the stigma against speaking out about mental illness means that many families are reluctant to report it and get help.

“On the West Side of Chicago and in Austin, in particular, there are currently 325 families affected by autism,” Vines said. “Now, those are documented cases. I believe there are way, way more.”

The National Institute of Mental Health describes autism spectrum disorder as a developmental disorder that results in difficulties in communication and interaction with people, as well as narrowly focused interests and repetitive behaviors. 

The disorder is described as a spectrum because the symptoms manifest in a variety of ways and their severity can vary widely. Treatment options usually involve therapy and medication.

Vines and Harlan founded their non-profit in 2007. Their adult son, Jason, has autism, and they wanted to not only give him the best life he could have, but help families caring for developmentally challenged loved ones.

George Miller, the president of Loretto, said that Vines approached him about the opportunity to extend her organization’s services further east, into the city. Miller, who was named president last year, said that he liked Vines’ vision and thought that it fit pretty well within the hospital’s mission.

“Obviously, we’re a healthcare organization, so we’re always pleased to partner with other healthcare organizations that work with people who have diagnoses that are chronic diseases,” Miller said.

Vines said that the support group for parents and guardians with children and dependents who have autism will be supplemented other resources.

“We’re going to provide support group meetings and also referral services to our partners in the Austin community,” she said.

Vines said that said that she eventually wants to bring The Answer’s other programs to Loretto, such as its  Music n Me program, which incorporates dance, exercise and nutrition. Vines said that all programs will be “free, absolutely free” to families who need them.

The open house was organized to not only introduce Austin to The Answer Inc., but to connect families with other organizations with a similar mission.

The vendors included the Chicago Autism Network, which provides grants for families that can’t afford treatment for autism; Arc Illinois, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; and other advocacy groups and financial aid organizations. 

Samantha Trosky, who lives in Lyons and works in Oak Park, attended the open house with her son, who has autism and behavioral issues. She said that she struggles to find services that would help him, which is why she appreciated the event.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...