By Tara Nelson
Birch Bay resident Denise Skinner sits in her living room watching her son Nathan dress in a doctor’s costume during playtime. The activity might seem normal for a typical 7-year-old boy, but for Nathan, who struggles with autism, this is a milestone in his development.
Nathan is one of an estimated 1.5 million Americans who struggle with autism, a diagnosis in which children or adults find normal social interaction and communication difficult in varying degrees. In addition to a number of behavioral symptoms, autistic children generally lack the pretend play skills that other children exhibit.
“It just isn’t natural for these kids,” she said, adding that Nathan’s behavior has drastically improved in recent months.
Skinner, who works as a registered nurse at the Mother Baby Center, a Bellingham non-profit group that helps men and women gain the resources and skills to be become better parents, said she and her husband Jason have enjoyed working with a home therapy program as part of the Son Rise program of the Autism Treatment Center of America.
What’s more, she believes autism is not only treatable, but also reversible. In short, she believes her son will be cured.
Before the family began the program two years ago, Skinner said Nathan would sit in his specialized playroom and spin wheels on cars for hours. But through the program’s unique parent-based home therapy approach she said her son is now more interested in spending time with one of several trained volunteers who visit him each week. He also enjoys playing with his younger brother, Brayden.
“Before the program, he had no interest in socialization,” she said. “Now he pulls the volunteers into the room. He literally can’t wait to see them. He’s developed relationships with them even when the professionals said he wouldn’t.”
A different approach
Brian Nelson, senior family counselor with ATC, said the ATC’s “option” program is different from conventional autism therapy because it emphasizes training adults how to better understand their child’s behavior and encourages them work with their child through their development with a loving and accepting attitude.
Nelson, whose son is also autistic, said this is often accomplished by parents joining children in their favorite activities rather than forcing them to adhere to conventional behavioral standards. Doing so helps encourage them to interact with adults through an incentives-based approach, he said.
One of the more controversial aspects is the program’s belief that autism is a temporary condition, and completely curable. Whereas other programs will characterize children based on whether the behavior is good or bad or appropriate or inappropriate, ATC counselors view the condition as a relationship-based issue, the treatment of which is dependent upon the cooperation of the entire family.
“With the other programs it’s always dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause,” he said. “But if a child fell and injured their leg, we wouldn’t tell them to stop limping, we’d take them to the doctor. So we deal with the symptom as well as the cause.”
Focusing on praise
At the Skinner home, Nathan plays in his special play space – a quiet room painted in muted colors with toys placed out of reach on high shelves. If he wants to play with a toy, Nathan must ask the volunteer to hand it to him.
The room’s window coated in a special one-way coating that prevents Nathan from gazing at outside distractions. Toys are not battery operated or noisy because the idea is to make the person the most exciting thing in the room.
Meanwhile, the volunteer is instructed to always be within view so they can praise him.
Currently, Skinner said she has four trained volunteers who spend between one and two hours two times per week but is looking for additional people willing to donate some of their time.
“We want to teach these kids the joys and wonder of a human being,” she said. “Autistic kids are more fascinated with objects than people. These games make them feel like socializing and teach that people are fun and that, in turn, helps them want to socialize.”
How to help
But although both Denise and Jason have health insurance, neither of their policies will cover the costs of treatment beyond a handful of visits to a speech and occupational therapist.
To help afford their son’s treatment, Skinner said the couple downsized their 2,000-square foot home in Sudden Valley two years ago to move to a 1,000-square foot home in Birch Bay.
They also reduced the number of hours they worked from 40 to 20 hours for Denise and 40 to 32 hours for Jason so they would be able to spend more one-on-one time with him – a cornerstone requirement for the program’s success.
And in April, the couple celebrated Autism Awareness Day by helping to organize an obstacle course and fun run with the help of nearly 30 children from Blaine’s Home Connections school program. Part of that effort was to help change the negative stigma associated with autism.
Skinner, however, said she sees the program as an opportunity to learn and be closer to her child rather than a financial sacrifice.
“These children are amazing in that I think they have a lot to teach us,” she said. “What’s so ironic about this process is it’s where adults go to learn so it’s actually more about changing the attitudes of adults.”
The couple has also organized a Ski to Sea “Autism Awareness” team as well as organized T-shirts to help raise money for Nathan’s trip. Suggested donations are $20 plus $5 for shipping.
Individuals interested in becoming trained volunteers or purchasing an “Autism Awareness” Ski to Sea team t-shirts should call 360/927-5725.
All proceeds from T-shirt sales will go toward the funding of Nathan’s Son Rise intensive therapy program from May 12 through 16. For more information about the Son Rise program, visit www.autismtreatmentcenter.org or call 413/229-2100.