YOUNG AND HEART: Chicagoan Lauren Rabin is bringing a millennial, entrepreneurial and Jewish spirit to the treatment of autism

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Lauren Rabin did not need the proverbial “five years’ experience,” as grandfather Joseph Rabin once predicted, to find her calling and help others.

Rabin had just turned 24 when she founded Autism Family Center in Winnetka in September 2013. The Deerfield native, self-described as a “creative person” participating in dancing, painting and writing activities growing up, went out on a limb. She corralled $40,000, mostly in loans, did not take a salary for her first five quarters of operation and filled a north suburban need for a specific autism program to supplement any found in schools.

She did it with just a couple of years’ experience working in child-care and at-risk youths centers. She could also count three months working at the Yotvata kibbutz in Israel, where in between sorting lettuce and greens in the hydroponics building, Rabin learned about the concept of collaborative action that is crucial at Autism Family Center.

Seniors passing 90 are still making an impact. You’re never too old. Conversely, Rabin proved one is never too young to make a significant contribution to public health and awareness. But no matter what her age, her timing was perfect with advances in understanding and public policy on autism.

Everyone needs a catchy title. On her regular blog for the Huffington Post, Rabin billed herself “Founder, Friend, Daydreamer, Feminist & Gal’s Gal.” But behind every good headline should be a story of substance.

Forced into a sketchy job market amid the slow recovery from the Great Recession, millennials like Rabin often resorted to start-up companies or putting an assortment of gigs together. Rabin was more fortunate to have staff positions in the helping profession in Seattle and Colorado to save a little money and supportive parents in Marc Rabin and Karen Heisler.

She encountered autistic youths in all her previous positions and realized the need in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Now, with revenue almost exclusively from insurance companies paying their portion of her clients’ fees, she has expanded her facilities from the original basement location on Green Bay Road in downtown Winnetka to a West Loop office.  Rabin now employs 45 therapists and five directors, serving between 75 and 100 students ages three to 30.

“I needed a creative outlet,” said Rabin, who majored in psychology at Colorado State. “Millennials have this start-up, entrepreneurial spirit. I very much took to that nature. But I wanted to stick with what I loved. And that was helping people and making sure I was part of the human services industry.”

Autism is much better diagnosed in recent decades, so Rabin found examples of children and teen-agers afflicted with assorted forms in which communication and comprehension skills are stunted.

“I was in many different kinds of centers, all of which had autistic (youths),” Rabin said. “I felt they didn’t have a coordinated program.  It seemed like the teachers, therapists and parents all were saying different things. They all had their own opinions. I thought people at the very least should work as a collaborative team. And I also thought collaborative teams are very good for the team members themselves.

“Part of the start-up culture is making sure we have places people want to work in. Every young, cool start-up, their whole thing is about their culture and how fun it is to work there. Well, there is none of that when it comes to the helping services. So if you’re in education or you’re in health care, nobody cares about the culture. Shouldn’t we care about doctors and teachers, so they like their job? They do the most important job in the world – they take care of children.”

A traditional manner of a therapist taking care of an autistic child – always preferably on a one-on-one basis – was home visits. The workers, however, feel isolated without a support system.  That’s why Rabin felt the need for a “center-based” way to work with autistic children in the northern suburbs. Other types of treatment centers for substance abuse or depression had long been established.

Rabin established her center literally “one tiny baby step at a time.” She began with one therapist and no furniture. Each time a new student arrived, the therapists, then paid hourly, added a toy. But she gauged the market correctly, needing to open a downtown office to serve city families.

At the original suite of basement rooms on a recent morning, a visitor glimpsed a main therapy area, brightly lit and set up as a playroom with toys and books. Off to the side was another therapy room that could be turned into multi-use with a couch and chair for counseling or discussions. One wall had messages chalked on it from students and staffers. Part of the room had empty space into which a desk or TV could be added for specific students.

Still another room was set aside for autistic kids whose trouble communicating leads them to throw objects around. Rabin pointed out if an individual experienced pain or stress, but was unable to express themselves, the result would be such body English actions. This area was sparsely furnished with just a world map on one wall, a writing area on another, both of which could not be torn off amid any tumult.

“Autism is a developmental delay,” Rabin said. “It is extremely complex. We talk about Autism Spectrum. People look at a spectrum as on one end it’s low, and on the other end it’s high. Low functioning and high functioning, and everything else falls in-between.

“But autism is more complex.  There are many different categories of development for all humans. We have social development, we have motor development, we have emotional development, we have language development. So while one child may not have language and communication development, they may have very high emotional regulation. Each child may have different areas that are affected.

“Just because they can’t speak doesn’t mean they are low-functioning. They may have very high IQ’s, they may have high emotional regulation. On the other hand, we have people who are completely verbal, they have full language skills, but they aren’t able to identify their emotions.”

Autism Family Center practices a “multi-disciplinary” approach.

One is “applied behavior analysis,” which increases skills and decreases behaviors that interfere with learning or daily-life functions. “ABA is the only empirically proven method to reduce the symptoms of autism,” Rabin said. The other approach is clinical counseling or psychotherapy, ranging from classic counseling sessions to play therapy.

Many autism sufferers were misdiagnosed in past decades, and left to their own devices to cope with life. But advances in analysis in this century have shed light on the affliction.

Yet Rabin declines any cookie-cutter approach. She retains an open mind to handling her students.

“I listened to a lot of people talk, but I did not take every piece of advice that everybody gave me,” she said. “A lot of people said to wait longer and to do things a certain way. I noticed that things around me were changing me. I could not take old advice and apply it to today’s world. If I wanted to do that, I could just work at an organization that was established.

“Maybe I was young enough to be naïve. Maybe I was young enough to just take a chance. What they were doing wasn’t working anymore. I was going to try something different. I don’t have to do everything people tell me to. But we’re doing pretty well.”

Rabin’s Jewish cultural and philosophic base with a commitment to social justice long predated her keen post-college interest in autism.

“I grew up Jewish and my family raised me in a wonderful way,” Rabin said. “They got their values from Judaism.”

“We had a high bar (in our family). They were very open-minded.”

Rabin credited her grandfather for instilling another key Jewish value – education. The elder Rabin had founded the Rabin market research firm in 1960.

Lauren Rabin then caught the wanderlust, a key factor in her career destination, as a teen-ager.

“When I was 18, I graduated from Deerfield High School a semester early,” she said. “I wanted to use that time to travel.

“I had a cousin who spent some time on a kibbutz, and it sounded like a wonderful experience.”

Rabin traveled to Tel Aviv, doing odd jobs and soaking in the culture while waiting for placement on a kibbutz. She was assigned to Yotvata, a big dairy farm known for producing a popular brand of chocolate milk. Her job was picking lettuce in the greenhouse, but the camaraderie experienced was more important.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I was very awed. I met a lot of Israelis and all the other volunteers from around the world. I learned about all the reasons people come to Israel. I learned about collaboration. It was my first real work experience. I got up at 4:30 a.m. and started at 5.”

Rabin spent some additional time traveling about Israel before going to college.

As far as autism in the Jewish community, Rabin says Jews are no different from any other group. :”I do not think there is any significant research that would point to the Jewish population having a higher rate of autism compared to other populations,” said Rabin. “There is a high prevalence of autism among all families (one in 68).

“Jewish parents, like all parents, will handle the diagnosis in a variety of ways. Some embrace the journey that they are on. But for some parents, it is harder to accept. There still is a stigma when it comes to autism and all mental illness, but there is more awareness. This applies to Jews like to everyone else.”

Nothing in her academic training, prepared Rabin for the administrative part of her job. Much of her time is dealing with insurance companies, always a daunting task. “Never, ever give up,” she said. And, as a result, she has far less time to get out into the classroom to work one on one with her students.

“When I started, I tried to do it an hour a day,” she said. “I can’t do that anymore.”

While Rabin is worried the Republicans’ projected Obamacare repeal would hurt lower-income patients and Medicaid recipients, she is hopeful autism as a pre-existing condition will still be covered.

Rabin detailed her projections in a Huffington Post blog:

“Some key parts of the Affordable Care Act made it into the new bill and will continue to find their way into revised legislation. As most families affected by autism know, the “essential health benefits” laid out by the ACA ensure that plans will cover the necessary services for a patient with ASD. These benefits include behavioral treatment, rehabilitative services, screening, and prescription drugs.

“Additionally kids will be able to continue to stay on their parents insurance until they are 26, and Obamacare’s ban on annual and lifetime limits will also remain in the law. Perhaps most importantly, insurance companies will not be able to discriminate based on a pre-existing condition like Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“This may come as a relief to some families who are affected by ASD, and as the provisions continue to change, there is plenty of room for improvement. However, there are other concerns when it comes to autism services under a Trump administration. Trump’s vocal concern for the long-debunked connection between vaccines and ASD can have harmful effects on health care. Policy-makers, researchers and advocates for services may end up focusing on yet another outdated debate, while losing valuable time and resources that may otherwise have been allocated on research, and fighting cuts to coverage.

“The important thing is to stay informed and stay vocal. It is likely that the proposed legislation will not be passed. We have the power to direct the conversation to the things that matter: maintaining adequate coverage for quality health care no matter who you are or how much you make. Health care is a human right. If you want to see a better plan, call your senators and let them know what their voters believe in.”

Perhaps Rabin will be one day tapped as an expert on autism and how a future insurance system must cover it. Her grandfather, an initial doubter, is now fully convinced she is in the right field.

“He can’t see me working anywhere else,” she said.

Given the advances in the field and her youth, Rabin also offered some optimistic projections of how autism could be handled when she’s a middle-aged expert and beyond.

“There are more children who have autism now than there used to be,” she said. “But more people are diagnosed with autism.

“I’m going to continue to hire people who are part of those advancements, who understand the most recent developments and keep up with the science, and changing health-care laws.

“The earlier (autism) is identified in an infant means you can start treating it right then. Every single scientific study shows that the earlier people get started with intervention, the better chances they have. They’re doing more and more genetic studies and tests that can be linked to internal factors. It’s not fully developed yet, but they’re working on it.”

The obvious goal would be to work in-utero on any autism markers. And the satisfaction for Lauren Rabin will be she was there when the breakthroughs began, put her money in the right place at the right time, and will still be on the job when there is an even better payoff.

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