Special report: Attention to Autism
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Home video taken in 2013 by Angela Overton shows her then 6-year-old son Byron trying to participate in an end of the year kindergarten assembly, but his words are hard to understand.
Four years earlier, doctors diagnosed Byron with autism. Overton said it was tough sharing the video, but it's one parents need to see. "You know that they are trying to talk, but what they are saying isn't, you don't understand," she explained to WHAS11.
The Mayo Clinic defines Autism Spectrum Disorder as, "A condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication."
The CDC reports 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum.
Overton says Byron had all the red flags. He had limited interest in activities and he wasn't sitting still. Byron couldn't talk about his feelings and he enjoyed running into flat surfaces, like walls. Overton says it took 9 years to potty-train her son.
"When your child can't communicate, not only their wants, but their needs, for a parent, it's difficult. Because you don't have the tools, the knowledge the mindset to navigate your child in life," Overton said.
She did what many parents would do - she took to the internet and found the Bluegrass Center for Autism. http://bluegrasscenterforautism.org/
"I just am immediately uplifted with the smiles and the laughter," Paul Kichler explained.
He is BCA's executive director. "Bluegrass Center for Autism is really just answering a call for a need in our community for helping children and families in need who are affected by autism," Kichler said.
What started as the Academy at Saint Andrews in the Louisville church's basement in 2010 has now grown to two Louisville campuses with 57 children focusing solely on kids with autism.
"The growth that we have seen in six, seven years just goes to show the need that is out there and the need that is still there right now," Kichler told WHAS11.
BCA uses 'Applied Behavior Analysis' – or ABA. It is scientifically-backed treatment that promotes meaningful and positive change in behavior. Teachers use positive reinforcement to reward students for good behavior.
"We are very much a subscriber to the positive reinforcement and engaging our children in a positive way. So, that way we can be as loving and nurturing for our children on the spectrum," Kichler said.
BCA also pairs one instructor with one student, rotating children every 30 minutes. BCA is considered a medical therapeutic center and not a school so they aren't bound to a certain curriculum. There are individualized lesson plans.
"The children are going to develop at their own pace and we can help guide them to develop and grow. But, we can go at their pace," he said.
BCA is the only 1:1 ABA program in the region. It's Byron's fourth year here. Overton has been documenting Byron's progress.
From classroom outbursts - to now being able to sit still, interacting with his instructor.
"The grace that God has bestowed upon our family, I don't have words," Overton said through tears.
BCA does charge for its services, but Kichler says no family has left the program because of the financial costs in the three years he's been in charge. But, five families have moved across country to Louisville to get their children help.
"The parents who come to us are almost really at a last resort. They don't know what to do," Kichler said.
BCA is not a long-term facility. Children may age out of the program or progress to a point where they are moved to a more conventional school setting. "When a child leaves us to go to a mainstream setting, for us, that's a cause for celebration," Kichler said with a smile.
If there's any indication about BCA's success in treating children with autism, Overton says Byron's progress is a testament to the work of BCA's staff.
"Just because our children have delays does not mean that they are not beautiful," Overton said.
There are other resources for families in Kentuckiana.
FEAT of Louisville - or Families for Effective Autism Treatment - is a local parent resource group. https://featoflouisville.org/
Autism Speaks is a national resource group. https://www.autismspeaks.org/
And, The University of Louisville Autism Center at Kosair Charities is a local clinic for children with autism. https://louisville.edu/autism