St. Joseph’s Villa Announces Grand Opening of New Autism Center

Historic School Building Repurposed to Serve as National Model for Autism Education and Teacher Training

A group of people in a classroom
Classrooms are equipped with modern technology and filled with natural light.

RICHMOND, Va. – Inspired to make a difference by rising autism rates and the demonstrated long-term impact of expert educational intervention, St. Joseph’s Villa unveiled its new Sarah Dooley Center for Autism (SDCA) on Sept. 2, 2021. The school will expand SDCA’s capacity beyond the current 96 students, with the goal of reaching thousands more through partnerships in research and teacher training.

Faculty, parents, placing agents, and architects with experience in special education facilities collaborated through a series of charettes to influence the design the new school. This community input, as well as inspiration from top facilities like the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development in Durham, N.C., and the Shafallah Center for Persons with Disabilities in Doha, Qatar, guided the transformation of the Villa’s historic 1931 school into a vibrant state-of-the art education center.

“The flexibility of the new Center allows us to be creative and provide the best learning environment for each of our students, while turning to the larger challenges facing educators as autism diagnoses increase,” said CEO Kathleen Burke Barrett. “We aim to serve as a groundbreaking shared resource that contributes to key advancements in autism education at the national and international level.”


When students walk through the doors on Sept. 7, they will experience the culmination of nearly 10 years of planning, two years of construction, and an investment of more than $9.5 million in community philanthropy. The space is customized to meet students’ unique educational needs, support family involvement, and serve the broader autism community with areas for research and training.

  • Designed by Odell Associates and constructed by Daniel & Company, some unique features include:
  • Expanded accessibility, with new ramps, entrances, restrooms, showers, and an elevator
  • Enhanced safety features to promote positive behaviors and deescalate behavioral incidents without restraining or isolating students
  • A sensory library and indoor movement room
  • Abundant natural light and modern classroom technology
  • Transparent storage and customizable classroom arrangements to increase communication opportunities
  • A clinical suite with an observation room for student evaluation, family participation, research, and training
  • The Villa’s first-ever flexible auditorium with a 100-person seating capacity for professional trainings and conferences, and remote teaching technology.

SDCA staff share their excitement for the new building.


SDCA’s primary goal is to equip students with the skills they need to successfully transition back to their zoned public schools. Based in Applied Behavior Analysis best practices, the curriculum emphasizes communication skills development to grow self-advocacy and learning. Data-driven programming promotes social and life skills through Career and Transition Services and community-based instruction, all while using the Villa’s 82-acre campus as a powerful educational tool.

“Autism is unique in that it is very sensitive to expert intervention,” said Adam Dreyfus, SDCA’s senior director. “We focus on giving students more language and social skills. As those improve, you see behaviors improve, and it opens the world to them.”


The prevalence of autism continues to increase. Over the course of the Villa’s five-year fundraising campaign which raised a total of $30.6 million, the number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder increased from 1 in 68 to 1 in 54, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Public schools throughout Central Virginia are seeing greater numbers of children appearing on the autism spectrum each year, and at younger ages,” said Dreyfus. “We’re positioning this new building as a training hub and model for public school teachers, so that they can replicate cutting-edge best practices in their own classrooms.”

The new Center is designed as a venue for public collaboration that will help meet the growing need for professional trainings on a wide range of autism-related subjects, such as communication techniques and outcome measures. In strengthening its partnership with public schools, SDCA has the potential to impact thousands of lives across Virginia, participate in critical research and educational development, and take part in the global dialogue on autism.

Media Contact: Drew Melson,, 804-553-3318

For hi-res, downloadable photos and a 3D virtual tour of the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism, click here.

Read our coverage in Richmond BizSense and Henrico Citizen.

Reynolds Family Hall

Reynolds Family Hall of the new Sarah Dooley Center for Autism

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