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Health: CHOP Provides Autism-Friendly Spaces

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The number of people diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed, especially in New Jersey which has one of the highest rates in the country. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is home to the regional autism center.

Thousands of young patients are treated there and now there's a new building at CHOP that's more welcoming to children with autism. And that has made a great difference for the children who go there for treatment and therapy.

Doctors appointments aren't upsetting anymore for 13-year-old Annie Kelly.

She's autistic and like most others with the disorder, she can be easily upset by new environments or loud noises. "This building makes a big difference," says Amy Kelly, who is Annie's mother.

Kelly is a member of the Autism Family Partners at CHOP.

The group collaborates to teach skills and strategies and seek new solutions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. They helped create autism-friendly spaces at the new Buerger Center.

"I think it just means so much to families," says Kelly. "So there's something for the kids that need a lot of activity and something for those that need a little activity."

Inside the center, there's an emphasis on visual stimulation like spinning pin wheels on a ceiling. There are activities like squishy floor tiles that light up when a child walks on them.

"So now the squishy tile floors are going on all floors in the Buerger Center", says Amy Kratchman, a family consultant at CHOP. Kratchman also has an autistic child. She says the even placement of elevators away from doors was a special consideration. Elevators can often be a distraction.

"I like to say they speak the autism language now," says Kratchman. "It's very unique, very unique."

"The family input that we've given has made it just so much more friendly for the kids," says Kelly.

Nearly 18 thousand children with autism are treated at CHOP every year. Many of those children have big variations in what they're able to accept.

Annie was diagnosed early and has had a lot of therapy and she's able to communicate with an iPad.

"My daughter has brought me the greatest moments in my life and the greatest gifts, you just have to look for the silver lining." says Kelly. "It's a hard journey but it teaches you to appreciate the small things."

The Autism Family Partners group is now putting together a tip sheet for other families so they will know more about the special places and what to expect. They also want to develop an app so children will know what to expect before they arrive.

Autism Family Partners say the center is so well-received that it could become a national model for other centers that treat autism.

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