Natalie Mason started noticing signs of her son, Demonie Mason, 5, regressing at age 2. Until 2 years old, he was hitting all of his milestones and was ahead in some areas, she said.
But then his condition started to change.
“At 2 years old, he started to lose all of the things he had learned,” said Mason, a staff sergeant and Airman Leadership School instructor at Shaw Air Force Base. “He wouldn’t really speak anymore; he started getting really frustrated. He would hit himself out of frustration and throw himself around on the floor. He struggled with eye contact,” she said. “That’s when I knew something was off.”
After visiting a pediatrician and filling out a questionnaire on her son’s health, she noticed that he had all the signs of autism.
April is National Autism Awareness Month.
Autism spectrum disorder and autism are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. The disorders are characterized in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, www.autismspeaks.org.
Mason said her son went through a six-month diagnostic process to determine if he had autism. Demonie was diagnosed with Moderate Autistic Spectrum Disorder, she said.
“I was going through the shock of it as a parent,” she said. “I was devastated at first because I did not know what it was and was worried about so many doors closing for him in the future. But once I started educating myself on the disorder and seeking the resources to help him, I started feeling a lot more confident about his capabilities.”
After doing some research, she discovered the Early Autism Project Inc. Since April 2014, Demonie has been working with its professionals five days a week.
“When he started with us, he was not communicating; it was hard for him to ask for something,” said Vikki Elmore, Sumter Clinic director of Early Autism Project. “He was using some words to name specific things, but that was about it. Our priority at that time was getting him to use words to say things he wanted or needed. Now he speaks in full sentences.”
Since 1998, the organization, founded in Sumter, has been providing families and school districts throughout the U.S. at its many locations with treatment for children of all ages with autism and other developmental disabilities. The organization provides therapy to children and young adults in homes, clinics, schools and on or near military bases throughout the country. Therapists see clients from as young as 20 months to as old as 21 years.
The organization uses Applied Behavior Analysis, which is considered the most effective, evidence-based treatment for autism, according to its website, www.earlyautismproject.com.
ABA therapy teaches basic skills such as looking, listening, requesting and imitating, as well as complex skills such as reading, conversing and understanding another person’s perspective. The therapy also helps reduce behaviors that make it difficult for children to learn, according to the website.
The organization uses two teaching environments that are customized to each client, intensive teaching environment and natural environment, said Ann Eldridge, co-founder, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Early Autism Project.
In the intensive teaching environment, therapists work with children on skills that others may learn naturally, such as language skills and motor imitation, she said. In the natural environment, therapists are focused on motivating language, teaching children to ask for things, developing social skills, working on self-help skills and teaching children how to play with others and to follow instructions.
The therapy is provided under the direction of a board certified behavior analyst or board certified assistant behavior analyst.
“In almost every environment, we do the same type of program,” Eldridge said. “We set up an intensive teaching setting. We want to make sure the children are fully integrated into all of the natural settings their families enjoy. We are very focused that the children we work with have all of the skills to be fully included in their natural environment.”
The intensity of the program depends on the child’s needs and what their parents select, Eldridge said.”In all cases, we see children make progress; but that progress looks different for each child,” she said. “We work with each family to help each child reach their potential. Whether a child is fully included into a general education classroom or continues in a different type of environment, as long as the child is making progress towards meeting their potential, we and the parents are happy. We are working to develop a well-rounded child, and that is very important.”
Demonie now is able to speak in full sentences and his problem behaviors have improved, Mason said. Early Autism Project has also helped make him self-sufficient, she said, including being potty trained, bathing himself and eating by himself. His academic skills are also improving. He enjoys playing with his younger brother, Makai Mason, 4.
Mason said that she also feels confident in taking her son out to public places and functions.
“There was once a time I couldn’t do it,” she said. “He would act out because he was having sensory overload, and he couldn’t communicate that. Now he feels much more comfortable in public places.”
Autism is a lifelong condition, Elmore said. However, many children respond so well to ABA that they no longer exhibit all or any of the initial characteristics at the time of diagnosis, she said.
“We hesitate to make a specific prognosis for any child,” Elmore said. “Many environmental and developmental factors can affect the maintenance of skills or emergence of new challenges. With a diagnosis of autism, children have varying differences at each stage of their development from neuro-typical peers.”
Elmore said with Demonie’s progress during the past two years, it is possible educators could place him in a general education classroom setting, allow him to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and develop friendships.
She said it is recommended that children with a diagnosis continue to receive ABA services throughout their childhood.
Funding for ABA is not available to adults with a diagnosis, she said.
For more information, call Early Autism Project at (803) 905-4427 or 1 (888) 227-7212. The administrative office is located at 2580 Lin-Do Ct. in Sumter, and the website iswww.earlyautismproject.com.