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New clinic in Fairmont provides early treatment for ADHD and autism

Times West Virginian - 2/29/2024

Feb. 29—FAIRMONT — Kids with diagnoses such as ADHD and autism can now have their full potential unlocked now that a new clinic opened by two psychologists in the High Tech Park.

Claire Baniak and Jenna Wallace held an open house Wednesday for Unlocked Potential, their new clinic dedicated to serving child patients with neurodevelopmental disorders.

Both psychologists are experts in the neurodevelopmental field. Wallace's specialty is in pediatric psychology. Neurodevelopment is the process of the brain making connections to help humans learn different skills as the species ages. In its early years, the brain makes lots of connections as it encounters new stimuli and grows. However, disorders such as ADHD and autism can affect how the brain develops.

"We've learned over time that early intervention is key," Baniak said. "So the earlier we can diagnose anything medical or mental health wise and intervene on it, the better off we are in terms of outcomes. So if we can catch diagnoses like ADHD, autism, learning concerns early enough in childhood, or even adolescents, that gives us more time to intervene."

Catching disorders like ADHD or autism at a young age is important because without treatment, they're more likely to persist into adulthood and have worse outcomes. Much of it has to do with how malleable the brain is in early childhood. As a child ages, the brain loses some of that malleability. Therefore, early treatment and skill development will find an easier time taking hold in a younger brain.

"If we can get a child speech therapy when they're 18 months — if they're showing delays — versus waiting until they're three, the brain is making those connections to be able to pick up those skills," Wallace said. "We hope to make a big impact and that's what research shows us."

Baniak said the practice will consist of individual and group therapy focused on developing social skills and emotional regulation.

Developing these skills at a young age is important for another reason. Many adults who did not have these disorders addressed by parents or teachers at a young age struggle in settings that do not account for ADHD or autism. These settings can be either higher education, the workplace or even in intimate relationships.

However, awareness around different neurotypes has grown over the past decade, Baniak said. She hopes the clinic can help kids with different neurotypes find ways to get through school, or help with behavior challenges at home or with making friends. As the practice grows, Baniak hopes to be able to consult with different work settings to figure out how to better serve their neurodiverse employees in order to improve the work experience. By doing so, the workplace can also increase productivity and produce better outcomes for the company and the employee.

Baniak and Wallace are working to alleviate another problem — access to care.

"We were ranked 48th in the country for access to services," Wallace said, "I think that just speaks to the large volume of folks in our state who really need care and need services. One in 36 kids in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism. So we really believe that we need more mental health providers and we need more access to services and not a million different hoops to jump through in order to access them."

The waitlist to receive mental health services can be between 12 to 24 months.. Kids can be diagnosed with autism as early as two years old. However, the average age of diagnosis in the U.S. is four, meaning a lot of children miss crucial intervention in those formative years between two and four. Wallace also said families feel heightened levels of stress from not being able to access those services. Ultimately, Wallace and Baniak hope to impact those wait times in a positive way.

Victoria Lancaster is a nurse practitioner at Cardinal Pediatrics in Morgantown, as well as a professional colleague and friend of the two psychologists. She came to support Baniak and Wallace for their opening. Lancaster has witnessed the effects of the shortage first hand, confirming that the average wait time for programs similar to ones offered by Unlocked Potential is two years. Her own clinic, Cardinal Pediatrics, is not accepting new patients because the waitlists have gotten so long they don't have enough providers to do evaluations.

Which is why with Unlocked Potential's opening, she's hopeful it'll have an impact on families seeking care.

"I think it'll be huge," Lancaster said. "Just knowing kids can get in here so quickly, I mean, the services are absolutely top-notch there. Some of the best providers I've ever had the privilege of knowing and working with, truly."

Baniak and Wallace don't currently accept insurance. Part of this is to avoid tussling with insurance providers and to be able to provide treatment directly to patients. This model also makes it possible for families to get an appointment at any time and don't require a referral from their pediatrician. It avoids the wait and see model popular with teachers and doctors, which locks kids out of receiving treatment early. Since Baniak and Wallace are the only ones at the clinic, families speak directly to them rather than a receptionist. They provide detailed invoices patients can present to insurance for reimbursement. Their website,, also provides free resources for families to utilize, including links to financial aid for children with disabilities.

"We really want people to know that even if we're not the right providers for them, we are here to help in whatever way we can and the same thing goes for our pediatrician colleagues," Wallace said. "We want to be able to put information into the hands of the people of West Virginia so that they can help their child to reach their full potential."

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