Five-year-old Caleb Dills pesters his mother for attention, tattles on his classmates, and sometimes forgets that 14 comes before 15. You might think that he is a typical kindergartener, but you would be wrong. Caleb was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. But, thanks to early diagnosis and effective intervention and treatment, Caleb has made amazing strides in the past few years. Today, he attends a full-time kindergarten with typically developing peers.
Readers of Exceptional Parent were introduced to the Dills family from Fort Benning in Georgia back in April of 2008, immediately after Caleb was diagnosed. His parents, Salina and John, a first lieutenant, were very concerned about what the future would hold for Caleb. Today, they are eager to provide an update to their son's story so other parents who have children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will know that successful outcomes are possible and that they have every reason to be hopeful.
"I think it's so important for parents to know that it's not the end of the world when they get that diagnosis," says Salina. "They need to know that somewhere, somehow, there are people who can reach their child and make a difference."
After Caleb's diagnosis, Salina and John found Anne Stull, M.A., LPA, BCBA, a board certified behavior analyst with May Institute, a national nonprofit that provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral health services to individuals with special needs. Anne, who worked out of the Institute's Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders in Columbus, Ga., came to the Dills' home four to five days a week. She immediately began addressing Caleb's inappropriate behaviors and inability to speak more than 10 words.
"One of the biggest things we did in the beginning was addressing compliance, or basic direction following, like getting him to sit down to work with me," says Anne. "It was an uphill battle at first. Caleb was this precious little boy who didn't have words or ways to communicate his needs, so he screamed and threw tantrums to get the things he wanted."
Using the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA)--positive reinforcement, teaching in small steps, prompting, and repeated practice--Anne patiently taught Caleb to sit down at a table and work with her without screaming or throwing a tantrum.
ABA has been endorsed by the National Institutes of Health and has been identified by the Surgeon General of the United States as the most effective way to treat autism spectrum disorders (ASD). According to the National Autism Center's National Standards Report (2009), data collected through hundreds of studies indicate that ABA is a highly effective method to teach children and adolescents with ASD. ABA is the only treatment reimbursed by TRICARE's Extended Care Health Option (ECHO) and Enhanced Access to Autism Services Demonstration ("tutor") programs for military families who have children with ASD.
Intensive early intervention services that incorporate an ABA approach have been found to greatly improve the lives of children with ASD. These services focus on developing communication, social interaction, and basic functional skills in children, as well as reducing their problematic behaviors. The results impact all areas of their lives. When children with ASD can communicate and interact with others, they are more likely to succeed in school. And research confirms that improving a child's communication and social skills will also improve the quality of life for the child and his or her family.
Helping Caleb Find His Words
Once Caleb was able to sit down and cooperate with Anne's requests, she introduced the picture exchange communication system, or PECS. A form of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC), PECS uses pictures instead of words. …