Autism Spurs Parents to Act; Program Offers Training to Teach Children at Home

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Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Twenty-year-old Brittney Taylor says "pasta," and Josef Zupan, a 7-year-old child with autism, hands her a picture of noodles on a plate. She says "fur," and with some prompting, Josef hands her the tiger picture.

"High five," Ms. Taylor says, and Josef gives her one.

"Nice job. That's right," are other words of encouragement she uses to reward Josef and keep him on task as they work on vocabulary and following directions.

Ms. Taylor has been teaching Josef, who is completely nonverbal, since July through a training academy sponsored by Parents of Autistic Children of Northern Virginia (POAC-NoVA). The parent-run nonprofit organization, based in Fairfax City, focuses on improving the quality and quantity of education for children with autism. It has 350 families, primarily from Fairfax County, on its membership list.

"There is no quick fix for autism," says Ms. Taylor, a senior at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax who is majoring in therapeutic recreation. "It takes dedication and hard work."

Ms. Taylor is among the first eight students, including two parents of autistic children, to graduate from the POAC-NoVA Verbal Behavior Instructors Academy (PVBIA), which trains therapists for running a home program for children with autism.

"We have to, as parents, band together. We want our kids to get a good education, and we need help," says Theresa Wrangham, director of educational development at the U.S. Autism & Asperger Association. The association is a nonprofit organization

based in Draper, Utah, that provides educational and family support for those affected by autism spectrum disorders, a category of neurological disorders that includes autism. She is the parent of a 17-year-old girl with autism.

Parents often can find a consultant to design a home program, but they may have difficulty finding a therapist to work the program, says Justine Chang, who oversees therapist trainers for POAC-NoVa.

"It requires the parents to have a lot of patience. It takes a lot of time. And it puts a heavy impact on their finances," Ms. Chang says.

The shortage of therapists has resulted, in part, from an increase in the rate of autism, which affects 1 in 150 American children, according to POAC-NoVA.

"Autism is a constellation of symptoms that are seen in children who have primary social interactive impairments," says Dr. Stephen Mott of Georgetown University Hospital in Northwest, where he is medical director of the Autism and Communications Disorders Clinic and division chief of pediatric neurology and neurodevelopmental pediatrics for the Department of Pediatrics. He also is an associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at Georgetown University Medical School.

Children with autism have developmental abnormalities in their ability to communicate both verbally and nonverbally, Dr. Mott says.

"It is a disorder that has no primary medical treatment," says Lauren Kenworthy, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the Children's National Medical Center in Northwest. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. "The most important treatments we have for autism are behavioral and educational," she says.

PVBIA uses Applied Behavior Analysis/Verbal Behavior (ABA/VB) and other research-based methodologies to build verbal skills and achieve social connectedness.

ABA is a method of teaching that includes breaking tasks into smaller steps that each must be mastered before moving to the next one, says Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, a nonprofit organization based in Nixa, Mo. …