MIAMI — The color scheme is muted — warm earth tones — and the seating is exceptionally comfortable. Elegant black-and-white prints hang on the walls: Muhammad Ali, The Jackson Five, the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.” This is not your typical doctor’s waiting room.

But what’s truly special about the Mount Sinai Adult Autism Clinic, which opened its doors this week, is the service it will provide. Housed inside the Lowenstein Building at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach is a staff of doctors, nurses and attendants trained by the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities to treat adults with autism over 18.

The clinic will be a one-stop shop for patients needing a primary care doctor, specialists such as a cardiologist or neurologist, lab work and diagnostic services. Appointments will be spaced out to provide physicians extra time to consult with patients and their caretakers. The sensory-friendly waiting area provides amenities such as noise-canceling headphones, relaxation hand toys and weighted blankets to help ease anxiety. There’s even a private “quiet room” that offers closed-door solitude and silence if needed.

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For people like Cole Clancy, a 27-year-old with autism, the clinic is a godsend — both for him and his family.

“As we age, we all develop health issues we didn’t have as children,” says Dina Cellini, Clancy’s mother. “Individuals with autism are no different. Many of them have other issues — psychological issues with depression or gastrointestinal issues — that don’t show themselves at an early age. Those start to evolve as you get older, so consequently you’re in need of specialists you’re not looking for when the child is 11 or 12.”

Autism spectrum disorder is the umbrella term for a series of neurological disorders, which usually manifest between the ages of 2 and 3, that result in social interaction difficulties, verbal and nonverbal communication impairments and repetitive behavior. Depending on the severity, autism can result in anything from anxiety to intellectual and motor-skill disabilities, sleep disorders and self-injurious behavior.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of 68 American children registers on the autism spectrum — a tenfold increase since 1977. Over half a million kids with autism will reach adulthood in the U.S. over the next decade.

But while many pediatricians specialize in treating the disorder, a new primary care physician is required after an individual turns 18, and most of those have no experience with autism.

Dr. Elizabeth Kury-Perez, who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics, will lead the clinic. She has a family member who was diagnosed with autism and is well-versed in the kinds of special care her patients will need.

“We have visual cards to help conduct a physical examination and we use a visual storybook to help with the patient’s anxiety that shows them pictures of the staff and the examining room, so they know how everything and everyone will look,” she says. “They can also come by and look around even if they don’t have a visit scheduled, to help with the anxiety of going to a new doctor.”

The clinic was made possible by a donation from Igor Makarov, founder of Areti International Group, a Switzerland-based oil and energy company.

Makarov, who has an office in Jacksonville, is a former Russian bicycling champion and philanthropist with an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion, according to Forbes. Makarov became aware of autism after watching the film “The Accountant,” starring Ben Affleck as a CPA with Asperger’s syndrome, on the high functioning end of the spectrum. Through his friendship with Eugene Frenkel, who is a member of Mount Sinai’s board of directors and executive committee, he agreed to donate the funds for the establishment of the clinic (the exact amount is protected by a donor’s confidentiality agreement).

“We’re always humbled by being able to help people, because we believe that’s our debt to society,” Makarov said in Russian on Thursday, speaking through a translator, at the dedication ceremony. “United, nobody can beat us. And when we’re united, we need to continue to help each other.”

Mount Sinai President and CEO Steve Sonenreich said the clinic is the only hospital-based adult autism facility in the state.

“Identifying and answering the need for medical care in the adult autism population is one of the ways we continue to further the mission of Mount Sinai Medical Center,” he said.

© 2017 The Miami Herald
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