Autism therapy providing results for local children

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October 11, 2008
— Four-year-old Henry Updike crawled through the blue tunnel in his family basement as his therapists urged him to keep going.

"YAAHH!" cheered his therapists and mother, Char, when he emerged at the other end, peering up through his glasses.

Next up was twin sister, Anna.

"Go An-na!" Henry cheered.

When the first obstacle was complete in the homemade course, Henry ran to a visual course description on wall and ripped off the Velcro-attached picture of the tunnel.

Pointing to the next picture, Henry exclaimed, "basketball," and raced off to grab the ball to toss into the miniature hoop.

The scenario played out again with the balance beam as part of Henry's daily therapy through the Wisconsin Early Autism Project.

The intensive play-based therapy is helping Henry and many other children make surprising improvements.

"His personality has really taken off a lot," Char said.

About the program

The state-funded Project runs an in-home, behavioral program for autistic children.

"It's intensive because we're doing between 20 to 30 hours of one-on-one therapy a week in the home," said Michelle Sherman, director of clinical services.

Autism is a development disorder with symptoms that affect language development, social skills and behavior. It has no cure and is increasing nationwide—about 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism, according to the project.

The Wisconsin Early Autism Project is based on applied behavior analysis therapy and is the only program in the state to replicate work and results developed by world-renowned autism expert Dr. Ivar Lovaas of the University of California-Los Angeles, Sherman said.

Wisconsin therapists trained in California and work with children not only in Wisconsin but also at clinics around the world.

What it entails

Talk about a busy little boy.

Henry's weekly schedule includes six hours at early childhood development, three hours of preschool and 25 hours of one-on-one, in-home therapy, senior therapist Kim Wunschel said.

A leader and a team of therapists develop a child's program with the family, Wunschel said.

Therapy is play-based, and repetition and reinforcement are stressed, she said.

Henry's mid-level autism was diagnosed at age 12 months, and he's not unable to communicate well with his family.

Much of his learning is taught in the "therapy room" in the basement of Char and Ken Updike's home in Evansville. But therapy also is moved throughout the home to generalize the learning, Wunschel said. Therapists create a visual schedule for each session so Henry can follow by picture and know what's next.

One session on a recent day included putting together an alphabet puzzle, spelling his name and words with the letters and using flashcards for identifying categories, such as body parts.

"Where's Henry's elbow?" therapist Amber Weaver asked.

After a pause, Henry answered excitedly, "Here's an elbow," he said, pointing.

Video modeling is another way Henry learns by imitation. Char and Anna videotape simple scenarios, such as Anna asking her mom for an item. When mom says, "No," Anna politely says, "OK," and sits on the couch. Henry watches the videos and acts out what he sees, Wunschel said.

But the training isn't limited to the child.

Karen Descafano's autistic son, Dominic, used to be anxious and fussy at the grocery store, she said.

Char experienced the same thing with Henry and described it as a sensory overload.

Therapists taught Descafano, Janesville, how to use pictures to help 4-year-old Dominic. Before they'd go shopping, she'd show him a picture of a shopping cart to foreshadow what they would be doing.

"He's so much better on outings because he understands," Descafano said. "That's been a blessing. A lot of these things as a parent you don't think to do."

For a long time, Henry couldn't handle the sound of his mom vacuuming. The team taught Char to take baby steps by vacuuming closer and closer to the therapy room until the door was open, and then Henry used the vacuum, she said.

"Now he loves vacuuming ... He does it; it's like a chore," she said laughing.

"They kind of taught me how to think the way that they (children with autism) think and how to overcome barriers that we might have with Henry's behavior because of his autism," she said.


Before Dominic was diagnosed at 18 months, Descafano suspected something was different about her only child. Wherever Descafano and her husband, Joe, went with Dominic, he was crabby. Dominic wouldn't make eye contact or smile back at people.

He received 2 1/2 hours of therapy a week during a birth-to-3-year-old program before getting through the paperwork and waiting list in December to start in the intensive program.

"That was a Godsend," Descafano said of the additional therapy hours.

She asked her team to concentrate on speech development with Dominic and believes he wouldn't be near where he is today without the program.

"His attention has really gotten so much better," she said. "I think his attitude is better. I think he's happy. He likes to go to school, he likes when the therapists come."

Waiting list

For all the success the program is providing, getting into it is a challenge. The waiting list is about two years, Sherman said, but once you're in, it is free for three years with an annual recertification.

As soon as Descafano and Char received the diagnoses for their sons, they signed up for the waiting list while exploring other options.

Henry started in the project when he was 2 1/2 years old, but his parents decided to pay for 10 hours of therapy a week before that.

"It was like our life savings, but I thought it was important to start really early because all I kept reading was, ‘Early intervention is the best, early intervention is the best,'" Char said.

She said you have to "learn how to play the game" of getting through the system and encourages parents to research candidates and vote for those who support funding autism programs. Char also is looking for Rock County parents of children with autism to start a support group.

Both mothers highly recommend the Early Autism Project, and advise parents to sign up as soon as they receive a diagnosis.

But the biggest thing parents need is hope, Descafano said.

"When your child is diagnosed, it's very overwhelming," she said. "You just feel so lost, you don't really know what to do. What does this mean for your child's future? Just have hope. In such a short time I've seen (Dominic make) so much progress."


To find out more about the Wisconsin Early Autism Project, visit its Web site at www.wiautism.com. Parents looking to sign up for the program can call the intake coordinator at (608) 288-9040.

Support group forming

Evansville mom Char Updike wants to start a Rock County support group for parents of children with autism. She envisions creating a community of friends and resources. The group could include play times or dinner with parents who can relate to raising a child with autism. Interested people can e-mail Updike at charleeu@charter.net.

Autism Sensitivity Training

The Exchange Family Resource Center and Imagine a Child’s Capacity is sponsoring a workshop for teachers, parents, caregivers and others interested to experience what it might feel like to have autism. The session will lead participants to a better understanding of the autism spectrum to develop support that is sensitive and proactive.

The workshop is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Evansville High School, 640 S. Fifth St., Evansville. To register for the free event, call (608) 314-9006. Free on-site child care will be provided for those who pre-register.

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