Easter Seals Hawaii’s Autism Center helps children diagnosed with ASD find their voice and share their story.

Genes? Chemicals? Television? No one knows exactly what causes autism. Experts agree, however, that the recent surge is alarming. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about one child in 2,000 was diagnosed with autism in the 1970s. Today, it says, that number is one in 68.

“That’s a dramatic increase in frequency,” says Ron Brandvold, CEO of Easter Seals Hawaii “Autism,” he adds, “is a disorder that severely impacts an individual’s ability to relate and communicate with others.”

“Jen” began working with autism therapists in 2008. At that time, the three-year-old had none of the social abilities expected of a child her age. She was unable to make basic personal contact, and lacked a sense of facial recognition. Dealing with such symptoms can be traumatic for parents and family members struggling to make a human connection. And according to Branfold, it’s equally traumatic for the child.

“Imagine living in a house where everyone speaks a different language than you do, and you don’t even know what the basic communication rules are,” Brandvold says.

Jen’s family turned to Easter Seals, an international nonprofit that provides assistance for children with physical, mental and developmental disabilities.

Using techniques, such as “applied behavior analysis” and “verbal behavior therapy,” Easter Seals Hawaii’s Autism Center helps students learn how to make basic requests, and otherwise, ask for help and attention.

“Here, they can learn to perform the kinds of vital, yet basic communication processes that most of us take for granted,” says Sean Tarrant, Easter Seals Hawaii’s autism services director.

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At the time of their third birthday, students diagnosed with autism can apply for services through Easter Seals Hawaii’s Autism Center, which currently has 15 clients, who are as old as 16. Six of those are “full-time students,” Tarrant says, getting services on a daily basis for up to 35 hours per week.

Understandably, it’s frustrating for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who experience the full range of human intellect and emotion, and yet can’t translate those feelings into everyday speech. One form of getting by, Tarrant says, is improper behavior, such as acting out.

“With verbal behavior therapy, we are working on specific skills that students can transfer to outside situations, such as trying to imitate and learn from one’s peers,” Tarrant says. “It’s isolation versus inclusion. In a sense, we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job, so that these kids aren’t isolated anymore.”

The skills start with basic mimicking exercises, such as stomping feet and clapping hands. The therapy is intensive, yet even students who master some challenges in the classroom cannot transfer those actions to outside activities, such as field trips.

“You can’t just put them out there with their peers and automatically expect to see those skills,” Tarrant says.

It takes about two-dozen trained professionals to serve the Autism Center’s 15 clients. Understandably, it’s costly. Behavior therapist services currently bill at $45 per hour, Tarrant says, with certified behavior analysts costing twice that amount. On a monthly basis, it’s typical for costs to run as high as $6,000 per student.

Tarrant would like to see the full-time programs expanded, but access to that kind of funding is a major obstacle. There’s also a shortage of certified behavior analysts, Tarrant says. He would like to see the number of students getting access to services increase, but that involves a constant search for certified professionals, as well as the money to compensate them. Some parents resort to paying for services themselves, and Easter Seals Hawaii does what it can to minimize their financial burden.

In addition to services for those diagnosed with autism, Easter Seals Hawaii teams with the Hawaii State Department of Health to provide services for all children below the age of 3 who are diagnosed with developmental disabilities. Th is involves the services of some 100 speech therapists and developmental social workers, all supported by Easter Seals funding.

Tarrant says that, when it comes to autism, most goals are measured in small victories. Even so, big changes can happen over time.

Tarrant, who has been observing Jen’s progress for four years now, says that at one time “she was almost completely shutoff from the outside world.” However, after seven years of therapy, “she has learned to learn from her peers,” transforming into an expressive person: one who delights in watching neighborhood children play and interacts readily with others.

It turns out that even socialization and a sense of normalcy can come at an interesting price. According to Tarrant, Jen’s mother once remarked in a somewhat fretful tone that Jen was now seeking to take on risk-taking adventures, such as skateboarding.

Tarrant fondly recalls sharing with the parent, “That’s kind of what we were looking for.”

On April 20, The Hawaii Prince Hotel will host its 25th Anniversary Celebration Gala, with all proceeds to benefit the Easter Seals Hawaii Autism Program. The aloha-attire event will feature live entertainment, a silent auction and signature dishes from an array of prestigious hotel chefs, including the renowned Gary Strehl. For more information regarding the event, visit hawaii.easterseals.com.

Unless stated otherwise, photos courtesy Easter Seals Hawaii