Sharon McLawhorn, right, watches as son Christian investigates a train set as part of his activities at the ECU Physicians Family Autism Center. The center has received a $1 million gift that will enable expansion of staff and services. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Major gift helps autism center expand services

July 21, 2014

By Amy Adams Ellis
ECU News Services

An anonymous gift of $1 million will enable the Family Autism Center at East Carolina University to increase professional staff and expand services for people with autism in eastern North Carolina.

“We look forward to adding colleagues from psychology and social work, as well as experienced therapists [speech-language and occupational therapists] to our current physician and nursing staff,” said Dr. Michael Reichel, a developmental and behavioral specialist in ECU’s pediatrics department and the center’s director. “Providing interdisciplinary evaluations and services will mark yet another step in fulfilling our mission to serve children and families in our region.”

Marcy Romary, interim president for ECU’s Medical & Health Sciences Foundation, said the recent gift was motivated by the donor’s close relationship with grandparents of a child on the autism spectrum.

“They saw firsthand how early diagnosis and treatment was so beneficial to this family, and wanted to ensure that families throughout the region would have access to first-rate diagnosis and care through the Brody School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics,” Romary said.
Dr. Michael Reichel

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a group of developmental disabilities that affect how a person understands what they see, hear or sense, according to information published by the Autism Society of North Carolina. People with ASD typically have difficulty understanding verbal and nonverbal communication and learning appropriate ways of behaving and interacting socially.

The prevalence of autism in North Carolina continues to increase, with more males than females being identified, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

Despite ongoing research, no one knows exactly what causes ASD, and there is no single test to diagnose it, Reichel said. “Accurate diagnosis is made by a team of multidisciplinary professionals who have observed a person’s communication, behavior and developmental levels – combined with caregiver input and developmental history,” he said. “It’s a process, not a one-stop shop.”

Interventions for ASD should involve multiple disciplines, as well, Reichel said. That’s why he and other organizers envisioned the center as an interdisciplinary hub for autism supports, treatment, advocacy, training and research to benefit the community and region.

“We are so grateful for this major gift to help us expand staffing and clinical services,” said Reichel. “With additional private and public support, we’ll be able to attract other clinicians who can support and advocate for older individuals with autism. These kids do grow up. Our goal to emphasize needs across the lifespan will make our center truly unique.”

Sharon McLawhorn, of Chicod, said her five-year-old son Christian has made unbelievable strides since being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder a little over two years ago, thanks to Reichel and the Family Autism Center.

The Family Autism Center
“This place is a safe haven for the kids and their families,” she said. “It’s where parents can learn from other parents and staff. Where they can get the knowledge and tools to help their child and to advocate for their child. Where they can get support, but mostly hope.”

Since May 2013 the center has been providing developmental testing and screening tools that can identify children who might have autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays, pragmatic communication disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other significant neurobehavioral conditions.

The center is located at 108-B West Fire Tower Road in Winterville. For more information visit

The ECU Medical & Health Sciences Foundation is the official charity for ECU’s Division of Health Sciences. Funds acquired and managed by the foundation are designed to enhance education, teaching, research and service within that division. For more information contact Romary at 252-744-3057 or