Located in a nondescript office park the One Child Center for Autism has been changing the lives of children and parents across Hampton Roads since 2013.
The center’s mission is simple: To provide services and support children and families affected by autism and other developmental differences in their individual journey, regardless of financial circumstances.
Julie Cullifer founded One Child after first beginning her professional life in public policy. An alumna of The College of William & Mary, Cullifer worked in Washington, D.C., and traveled around the world before returning to Williamsburg with her husband to raise her family.
That’s when she discovered her son had autism.
Finding a void in accessible and affordable services for children with autism, Cullifer decided to start a group of her own. Since then, the non-profit center has grown to not only providing services for children with autism spectrum disorder, but also for children with varying differences and diagnoses.
“One Child began with one social skills group for five preschool children in a rented room,” Cullifer says.
“Today, the social skills program alone serves 30-plus children a week and has levels for children ages 3 through eighth grade in our own office space.”
The name of the center is based on a quote from Dr. Stephen Shore, an acclaimed professor of special education at Adelphi University who is himself autistic. The quote goes, “Once you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” The saying reflects the reality that there’s no one way to navigate the world of autism spectrum disorder, and that each family has to figure out its own way.
Over the past five years, more than 150 children have been served in the center’s weekly programs, which include applied behavior analysis therapy, speech therapy, art therapy, social skills programs, psychological and education evaluation services and recreational activities.
The center “was exactly the kind of place my family and I were looking for,” says Sandy Vogt, whose son goes to programs at One Child. “It’s not limited to just people with certain diagnoses — anyone who feels like their child could benefit from the programs can come.”
The supportive and interactive environment of the programs has definitely helped her son gain social skills and improved his interactions with other children, Vogt says.
“He was a kid who would always play alone on the perimeter of playground,” she says. “It’s where he felt safe and comfortable. By the middle of the school year, his teacher sent me pictures of him playing all over the playground with other kids. He always had the desire to play with other kids; he just didn’t have the skills and the chance to practice, and One Child gave him that.”
One of the most difficult parts of offering its services, however, are the costs associated. One Child strives to make it as affordable as possible for families of all backgrounds. Thanks to community support, the center is able to award therapy scholarships.
The reality is families don’t plan on having a child with differences and are not prepared for the physical, emotional and financial stress,” Cullifer says. “Most people take for granted the cost of health care until they have a family member affected by a disease or disability.”
Cullifer says she’s “blessed to live in a philanthropic community that values the work that One Child is doing.” At the same time, she says she wants to increase the center’s capacity to offer as many services affordably to as many families as possible. Making tax-deductible gifts to the One Child Center helps offer services to children at much lower costs to their families and helps grow outreach in the wider community.
Volunteers are also welcome, particularly for the monthly Kids’ Night at Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex (WISC) in collaboration with Child Development Resources. Kids’ Night is intended to be a liberating opportunity for both the kids and the parents. Children get to play with others in a supportive and supervised environment, and the parents can take some time to themselves while knowing their kids are in good hands and having fun.
Over the past five years, more than 300 children have been served through the Kids’ Night program.
“It’s our only date night,” Vogt says. “My husband and I will go eat, walk around Target … it doesn’t matter what we do — just being able to have a quiet night to ourselves, it’s wonderful.”
Hearing that the center’s programs have made a difference is what Cullifer strives for. Success for the center, she says, means “meeting the needs that exist in the community.” She wants families to feel more successful navigating and advocating for their child’s journey at the same time children are finding their voices and becoming more self-confident.
“Our hope for One Child is that it will serve as an oasis,” Cullifer says, “a space where our children are celebrated for their unique talents and gifts and families feel a sense of acceptance.”
Families are often referred to One Child Center by doctors, counselors and teachers, but parents can contact the center directly at their website, www.onechildcenterforautism.org, through email at email@example.com or by calling