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60th Spotlight: Dr. George Noell and our First Autism Program

Dr. George Noell is credited with launching the first autism pilot program at Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation (BRSHF) in 2004 in partnership with Executive Director John Bowman.  Through their combined dedication, children in our community are now receiving autism services that were once never imaginable. Because of this, The Emerge Center is Gulf South’s premier non-profit provider of early intervention therapies and education for children with autism and individuals with communication challenges. 

In this brief interview, Dr. Noell shared his story and the reason why he started this unique autism program.

Emerge: What is your connection with Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation and The Emerge Center?

Dr. Noell: Flash back to 25 years ago when I began providing consulting support to help with the most challenging students at BRSHF. During this time, my team from LSU worked year after year to make as much of a difference as we possibly could.

We created the autism pilot program due to the frustration that John Bowman and I shared about how BRSHF was not capable of serving children with autism.  I still remember the afternoon John and I decided to start the program. It started with a simple handshake – he would take care of the financial side of things and I would take care of the clinical aspects.  John designed it and I ran it.  He made sure the lights stayed on and I made sure the children received help. 

We opened the doors in August of 2004 and none of us knew how we were going to make it work, but we showed up every day.  Before insurance coverage, everything we did was very low-budget, month-to-month, while we just tried to keep the doors open.

Not only was this a chance to provide desperately needed services to children, but it was also an invaluable training opportunity for PhD students at LSU. 

Emerge: What were your visions for the program then and how do they compare to where we are now?

Dr. Noell:  In terms of what I had envisioned, now has scaled complexity on a level that was not imaginable 20 years ago. When we started this program, it was just a small, intimate, start-up clinic with a waiting list that grew every year.  It is now a different entity, a large corporation.

Emerge:What is one thing you want to be sure the community knows about Emerge?

Dr. Noell: The Emerge Center is the true meaning of what BRSHF and our autism pilot program was. To know Emerge is to see the changing of lives of young children in ways that are almost incomprehensible. The magnitude of the services – especially the ABA pre-school program – has the capacity to change the quality of life in children that, when you first meet them, you just don’t know if it’s possible. This program has shown that it is.

Emerge: This year, Emerge celebrates 60 years of service to the community.  What thoughts and emotions come to mind when you think of that?

Dr. Noell: It’s difficult to answer this because when I arrived, BRSHF was almost 30 years old and the Foundation and I ended up in the right place at the right time. Together, we could do things that both of us cared deeply about, but neither had the capacity to do alone. I’ve been in Baton Rouge for 25 years, and today, Emerge’s autism services are on a different caliber level than anything that existed, or didn’t exist, before.

Emerge: Is there anything you would like to add?

Dr. Noell: It’s interesting to note that people who are raising a child with autism today cannot conceive of what it was like 20 years ago. There was nowhere to go. A short time ago, the only families who had access to these services were those of wealth and they were having services flown in from out of state.

A lot of what we did was solely because we couldn’t tolerate the status quo. We just did what needed to be done.

I will never forget one little girl who came to us at 2 years old as part of the first ever class. She had no functional words and significant behavior challenges.  It’s safe to say I was alone in thinking that we could help her, but four years later, she had a sense of humor, a vocabulary and left us to enter into a general educational pre-school. With something like that, it’s hard not to appreciate the magnitude of differences we are making.

The most important thing: when these things are done and done well, they have the chance to change lives.

Interim-Chair & Professor, Department of Psychology Director, School Psychology Program Louisiana State University