Gabriel Manco showed his mother, Rachel, a game in a magazine.
“What does that say?” the 5-year-old Bowling Green boy asked as he pointed at the words at the top of the page.
Rachel Manco explained that the game, “Little Bigfeet,” was designed to match animals. Gabriel circled the first one he thought matched. When he got it wrong, he simply decided to alter the animal by drawing on it so that it did match.
“He’s in the ninth percentile with the intellectual test they had testing logic,” Manco said. “It was done by a psychologist.”
Manco and her sons, Gabriel and 4-year-old Zachary, were at the Autism Awareness Extravaganza on Thursday, a party that Growing Minds Learning Center and Community Living in Kentucky held for its clients.
“We do it all for the families to have fun for a day,” clinic Director Shaunna Foell said. “We put together some activities for fun.”
A perspective that Community Living in Kentucky looks at is how autistic children play, Foell said.
“We learn with play. That’s what we promote with Applied Behavior Analysis services,” she said. “Kids with autism can feel left out.”
ABA provides an evidence-based approach to teaching behaviors, Foell said.
“It’s a different kind of therapy. We focus on teaching kids skills. For example, if a kid is yelling and throwing a tantrum, we teach them communication,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that they can’t talk, but they can’t get their message across. They’re trying to get across what they mean. We meet the kids where they are and make individualized plans.”
Autism is becoming more common, Foell said.
“One in 68 people have autism,” she said.
As Foell was talking, Gabriel ran up to her and put a Fruit Loop in her hand.
“He just brought me a Fruit Loop. There’s always something quirky and fun,” she said. “He was just sharing the Fruit Loop love. He’s showing those basic skills we work on.”
ABA is effective, Foell said.
“We get to see big moments of progress, and that’s very rewarding,” she said.
Manco can attest to that. Both of her sons are on the autism spectrum. They receive therapy at school, at the center and at home. Gabriel was diagnosed when he was 2 years old, while Zachary was diagnosed nine months ago. Gabriel has been receiving therapy for about two years and Zachary for six months.
“ABA has changed our lives. Just to be able to communicate and reinforcement have helped a lot,” she said. “It’s just changed everything.”
Gabriel will be mainstreamed with non-autistic children when he goes to kindergarten, Manco said.
“He gets two sensory breaks,” she said. “They’re going to try him out of the autistic unit.”
Joda Bullington’s 4-year-old son, Marlow, also receives services with Community Living in Kentucky.
“He’s made great progress since he started. He’s only been doing it since September,” the Bowling Green woman said. “Autistic kids need this.”
Bullington also doesn’t have a Michelle P. or a Supports for Community Living waiver, both of which are part of the Kentucky Medicaid program. The Michelle P. waiver is mainly for children, while the Supports for Community Living Waiver is mostly for adults, Foell said. Thousands of people are on a waiting list for services on both waivers.
“It’s the only place in town that takes the private insurance,” Bullington said of Community Living in Kentucky.
She and Marlow also love the therapists.
“They really know what they’re doing. They have a lot of great experience,” she said. “They’re really great at hiring people. Not everybody can walk in here off the streets. They’re very patient and fun.”
Manco believes people can learn a lot from others who are different.
“I love the boys the way they are. Everyone loves them,” she said. “I believe in God, so I feel like they’re for me. I’m very caring and patient.”
Foell said kids with autism are “so smart.”
“They have so much to give the world,” she said.