When Murphy Thomas was born with Down syndrome a dozen years ago, doctors took aside his mother, Tina Thomas-Vetter, to warn her about potential health issues her newborn would face, but they invariably offered an upside.
" 'He's going to be sweet,' " Thomas-Vetter recalled being told over and over. " 'He'll be the light of your life.' "
But Murphy was not, she said.
"He started hitting," Thomas-Vetter said. "He started biting. If there was glass, he would break it. He loved the sound of breaking glass.
"I said, 'This is not just Down syndrome. This cannot be just Down syndrome. There has to be something more.' "
There was more – autism – although it took a worried Thomas-Vetter a while to get that diagnosis for her son.
Flash forward to just before summer 2014.
After Murphy had been a student, albeit sometimes a troubled one, in the Olentangy Local School District, Thomas-Vetter said, he benefited greatly from being enrolled at the Step by Step Academy -- now called Boundless -- in Worthington. It is a school for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
However, Thomas-Vetter, who had become director of operations at Step by Step, wanted outdoor activities for her son.
With the help of Murphy's caregiver, Matt Ashworth, Thomas-Vetter launched a summer camp out of her home in Orange Township. A winter camp soon followed.
Not long after, with the help of her father, Donald Thomas, Thomas-Vetter established the Murphy Thomas Foundation to provide advocacy and information to parents of young people on the autism spectrum.
But Thomas-Vetter wasn't done.
Three years later she created the Murphy Thomas Group, now at 3400 Snouffer Road in northwest Columbus , to continue work the foundation started, such as the summer and winter camps, advocacy, psychiatric services, medication management, counseling and after-school care, according to the foundation's website, murphythomas.com.
How the group works
The Murphy Thomas Group offers year-round programs, and it accepts Medicaid, some insurance plans and private payments. Services are for children at least 3 years old and adults up to 22 years old, according to Thomas-Vetter, who is the group's CEO.
Thomas-Vetter said although autism is the Murphy Thomas Group's primary focus, its staff also works with clients who have another diagnosis, such as Down syndrome, Angelman syndrome, cerebral palsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
But, she said, the group's psychiatrist and counselors would see any person, at any age, with any mental-health diagnosis -- or if he or she just needs to talk to someone.
The Murphy Thomas Group also has been approved by the Ohio Department of Education as an autism scholarship provider. The scholarship program runs from August through May and was created to give parents of children with autism another education option other than typical classrooms or schools.
An intervention specialist follows the individualized education plan written by the student's home school and communicates regularly with school districts about the student's progress or needs. Group officials also meet quarterly with a student's parents.
Essentially, the Murphy Thomas Group teaches clients how to be social and independent, and it provides vocational skills needed to be successful, the website said. The foundation also provides training and support for clients' support systems, families, friends and providers.
"We take the kids that a lot of centers don't want," Thomas-Vetter said.
"We take clients who are ready to transition more toward an independent life and prepare them for that transition," said Ashworth, director of operations at Murphy Thomas Group.
"I feel our approach to clients is more client-led," said Adam Long, lead behavior coach for the organization.
After initially operating in a small rented space in Lewis Center, the Murphy Thomas Foundation and Murphy Thomas Group moved to the larger Snouffer Road location last year.
"We had a lot more control over our future, a ton of room for growth," Thomas-Vetter said.
"We were on top of one another at the old place," Ashworth said.
Summer camp started a few weeks ago, and one of the participants was Murphy Thomas himself, who offered a big hug during a tour of the place to not only his mom but also to Amber Jones, one of the clinical assistants.
"He runs the place," Jones said. "His name is on the building."
When Murphy was 6 going on 7, his mother said, he still wasn't able to go to the bathroom by himself and he barely could talk.
Now, Thomas-Vetter said, she's starting to envision the possibility that one day he might live in a group home, without aid.
"I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there," she said.
Parents, guardians or providers who want more information about the Murphy Thomas Group can call 614-467-9300.