Tuesday, July 1, 2008 | Reporter Emily Alpert has done a great service with her story “A Surprising Diagnosis Made with Crayons, Beads and Alphabet Blocks” which ran on Friday.

As the father of a special-needs toddler, I can tell you firsthand how critical early intervention is. Our son, Jason, developed his first words at about age one, which is pretty typical. But by 18 months he had lost his words and we noticed he rarely looked at people in the eye. He did not know how to point or otherwise communicate his needs and desires. It was a heartbreakingly frustrating existence for him.

We had no idea where to turn to for help, or even if we were just worrying about nothing because he was so young. Ironically, it was Jason’s chronic ear infections that ultimately helped us. Our pediatrician was concerned about possible hearing loss and referred us to an audiologist. The audiologist was concerned about his lack of speech and referred us to a speech pathologist, who ultimately referred us to the San Diego Regional Center.

The Regional Center operates the state’s Early Start program, and offers free preschool screenings, mentoring and other services for families with special-needs children. At about the same time, I discovered a nationally known nonprofit based here in San Diego called the Autism Tree Project Foundation, which offers similar programs and funds important autism research at UCSD.

Jason was diagnosed as PDD-NOS, which stands for “pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified.” This increasingly common diagnosis means your child is at risk for being on the Autism spectrum. Autism, as many know, is a disorder of the brain which can profoundly affect a child’s ability to interact socially.

Autism affects an astounding one in every 150 children born today, and one in 94 boys.

The Regional Center evaluated Jason and set us up with home therapists who worked with him two hours a day to stimulate the learning and development process, mostly through targeted play skills. The first time he pointed at his stuffed dog, which was on a shelf, to show that he wanted him, my wife and I cheered.

The Autism Tree Project Foundation connected us with other parents of autistic children who taught us how to navigate the system so that we could be sure Jason was getting everything he needed. They helped us get Jason into the Toddler School at Children’s Hospital, which integrates typically developing toddlers with ones who are experiencing developmental delays. The teachers and counselors there are dedicated professionals of the highest order.

Today, Jason is almost three and has a vocabulary of more than a dozen words. Some he can communicate by speaking; for others he uses American Sign Language. At his rate of development, we feel he has a fighting chance to make it into mainstream kindergarten on time.

A diagnosis of autism no longer means a child has no future and is destined for an institution. Research — and our own experience — has shown that children can make strides and even recover from autism with the right combination of early intervention, persistence and patience.

It is never too early to seek help if you think your child might be developmentally challenged. The sooner it’s detected, the sooner you can reverse the problem.

Thanks to Emily Alpert for helping to shed light on this critical problem.

Jonathan Heller is director of public relations for Southwest Strategies LLC. You can reach him at jheller@swspr.com. For more information on the services mentioned go to: the Autism Tree Project Foundation, the San Diego Regional Center and the Childrens Toddler School (Rady Childrens Hospital).

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