Balloons and kids in party hats fill the room as everyone gathers around a big cake. Twins, Isaac and Benjamin Mills are celebrating their third birthday. To a family outsider, they probably appear very much the same. Both little boys love Thomas the Tank Engine, sing silly songs and ride their tricycles, but there is at least one difference. Isaac has been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and his mom, Bel Willem says without the Sierra Kids Foundation this happy birthday scene wouldn’t be possible.
Trapped in Their Own World
ASD is a developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two-and-a-half years of life. Although most children with autism look just like any other child, they have problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, motor skills and often have trouble with social interaction. Boys outnumber girls with this disorder four to one, and in 2012 the Center for Disease Control reported that 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with autism.
Bel says she noticed early on that it was harder to get Isaac to smile and play games with her and Ben. “It was like he was in his own little world and didn’t really have a lot of desire to join ours.” But she says even then it was difficult for her to get Isaac diagnosed. In fact, at one point a pediatrician told Bel that she was just being a hysterical, first-time mom, but she still couldn’t shake that nagging feeling and so she turned to the Internet. “I’ll never forget the day I found the diagnostic manual for autism online and started reading and this horrible light bulb went off for me. Isaac was a match for nearly every symptom listed,” she says.
After doing some extensive research, Bel found that a treatment called Applied Behavior Analysis had had much success. She then discovered the Early Childhood Autism Program at the University of Nevada, Reno. This is a program that helps children with autism and their families through an intense, 30-hour-a-week program that emphasizes the child’s development in language, communication, socialization and personal behavior
Reclaiming Their Future
Isaac started the program in April and in seven short months Bel says he’s become a completely different child. He follows directions now and is connecting words to objects and actions. “The first time I really realized therapy was working was when Isaac sat down with Ben and I one day, watched us color for a few minutes and then picked up a crayon and started coloring too. He never would have been able to do that before,” she says.
Although 30 hours a week may sound like a lot, Bel says he really enjoys the sessions and has really bonded with the tutors. “Isaac comes skipping out of his sessions. I think it’s a relief for him to finally have some control over his world,” Bel says.
Sierra Kids Foundation
However, with intense training, a team of 5-6 tutors and a commitment of 30 hours a week for the first two years of the program, treating autism isn’t cheap. In fact, it costs more than $2,000 a month, and is rarely covered by private health insurance. This means that over the course of two years families will pay more than $50,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
Because of the Sierra Kids Foundation, Isaac received a partial, monthly scholarship. Bel says that without early intervention many children with autism will need assistance for the rest of their lives. “This is his life at stake,” she says. “It’s whether or not these kids are going to have a future or not and we are just so thankful to both Dr. Ghezzi and the Sierra Kids Foundation for giving our son his future back.”
By Elizabeth Hogue