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A capstone college course led a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alumna to open a business that provides a break for those caring for children with autism.

Rebecca Timmins ’15, ’20 MS, operates a unique child care center in Appleton specializing solely on respite care for children on the autism spectrum. Celebrate Neurodiversity! Autism Respite & Resource Center has been open since September 2019.

Rebecca Timmins

“My interest in autism began while in a capstone course at UW Oshkosh for my undergrad psychology degree, on the neuropsychology of autism with Dr. (Aaron) Karst,” Timmins said, adding that Karst promoted a view that although people on the autism spectrum may have areas which are challenging for them, they also have areas and abilities that often surpass neurotypicals―typically developed individuals.

Interestingly, in her studies, Timmins realized a sibling exhibited very high autistic traits, but had never received a diagnosis. She felt that she too probably possesses a higher than average amount of autistic traits: social anxiety, food and tactile preferences and noise aversion/sensitivities.

The class and her newfound interest led Timmins to seek a career working with children on the spectrum.

“I felt a lot of empathy and personal connection with the kids’ struggles,” she said.

Even before graduating with her master’s degree, Timmins was making plans to open a respite center that would accept and accommodate children with their unique differences and allow them to be themselves—instead of expecting them to conform to the neurotypical norm.

Timmins introduced children to long-term cognitive and emotional tools like yoga and deep-breathing techniques; mindfulness practices such as expressing gratitude and understanding they cannot control others’ emotions but only their own; and healthy ways to control anger and anxiety with stress balls, art, music, essential oils and other avenues.

“When they understand you are trying to help them avoid negative emotions and meltdowns, they are happy to learn and give it a try,” Timmins said.

Getting started on the Fox Cities campus

The Menasha native finished her high school years educating herself in a homeschool format. She was in a lower management position at a retail store when she realized she needed a college education to make the wage she believed she deserved.

She started on the Fox Cities campus of UWO as a 21-year-old and transferred to Oshkosh to complete her bachelor’s degree. Though she had interview offers from graduate programs at Purdue, Kent State and the University of California-Riverside, she said the experience, training and close personal bonds established with mentors at UWO and the opportunity for individual research experience helped her decide to continue with a master’s program.

Aaron Karst

“I was able to do my thesis using EEG (electroencephalogram) with human participants and examine the relationship between autistic traits and mirror neuron integrity,” she said.

Karst, the professor who was her mentor and adviser at UWO, said the psychology department’s graduate program does a great job providing students with research and statistical knowledge that can prepare them for furthering their graduate education or jobs in the private sector.

Karst supervised Timmins for her master’s thesis said she did a great job developing and carrying out a study that investigated whether the possession of autism spectrum disorder-like traits was related to mirror neuron system integrity.

“In terms of Rebecca opening her own business, I really think our program (undergrad and graduate) provided some of the information that helped her find her passion,” Karst said. “She had a big dream that was inspiring to see come to fruition. I can honestly say I was a little nervous for her starting her own business, but she was so passionate about it I believed that she could do it―and she did!”

Jump-starting her business

At UWO, she noticed a business model competition and was accepted into an eight-week business startup training followed by a $5,000 grant to help her open Celebrate Neurodiversity.

Her goals are to expand her autism respite center to multiple locations throughout the Fox Valley and provide support groups for parents, referral information for autism resources and yoga offerings for children with autism.

“I think the best thing parents can have is someone who is confident in their child’s value, who is not dead-set on changing them to fit a neurotypical mold and believes their child is capable of learning and growing just like every other child is.

“Without my experience with UWO Fox Valley (now Fox Cities) and UWO, I don’t believe I would be where I am today. I am immensely grateful for my time in the University of Wisconsin education system.”

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