Cover Stories

Critical Service: Thompson Foundation for Autism

For a child with autism, educational and behavioral programs can’t be put on hold during periods of crisis. In fact, stressful and challenging times highlight the importance of these services even more. Kids with autism rely on continuity and structure, so consistent care is vital, says Emma Keicher, Applied Behavior Intervention Services clinical operations manager at the Thompson Center for Autism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The center offers comprehensive programs including individual therapy, group sessions and support for parents and families.

Keicher says tailored assistance is vital because every child on the autism spectrum has a unique set of needs. Many have trouble learning new skills without continuous support and one-on-one therapy, and others have severe issues that can lead to aggression, self-injury and destructive behaviors. Complications like these can snowball into further problems, so early intervention is important, she notes.

To ensure that the center’s clients receive the help they need, the Thompson Foundation for Autism is hosting its Heroes Among Us fundraising gala virtually this year. Staff and a group of dedicated volunteers in St. Louis are working to produce an entertaining, informative event that will take place online the evening of Oct. 1. Registration starts at 6:45 p.m., and the program kicks off at 7 p.m. with an auction, fun virtual experiences, special guests and more. For more information, visit the event’s website.

“This year, during the most challenging time I can remember, demand for the center’s services has increased dramatically,” says Myles Hinkel, the foundation’s executive director. “Last year’s gala raised more than $300,000, and we are hoping to exceed that in 2020.” KMOX anchor Debbie Monterrey will emcee, and former St. Louis Blues player Reed Low will serve as auctioneer. The event co-chairs are Tanya Lieber, Tim Ney, John Qualy and Tom Zychinski, and Blues alumnus Chris Thorburn and his wife, Sara, are honorary co-chairs.

According to Keicher, one of the event’s key fundraising goals is a critical expansion of the center’s services. “We need to increase our capacity to offer Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, an evidence-based treatment program,” she notes. “Right now, there is more than a yearlong wait list for these services. We plan to renovate and add space at our center so we can help more kids and families. There is a high level of need in Missouri but not enough providers, so we also are expanding our board-certified behavior analyst master’s degree program.”

Hinkel says the virtual gala is designed to take participants on a journey of hope along with autism patients and their families. “It will have the same look and feel as an in-person event, but it will be from the comfort of your couch,” he notes. “COVID-19 has changed everyone’s way of life, but what has not changed is our commitment to those who need services. Taking part in the virtual event is a fun and rewarding way to help us help them.”

The 2020 Heroes Among Us virtual gala is scheduled for Oct. 1. It raises critical funding for services provided by the Thompson Center for Autism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Pictured on the cover: Sara and Chris Thorburn and family. For more information or to register for the event, call 314.550.2888 or visit

Cover design by Julie Streiler
Cover photo courtesy of the Thorburn Family

Pictured at top: Dr. Lorraine Becerra with a patient at the Thompson Center for Autism
Photo courtesy the Thompson Foundation