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Easter Seals Story: Connecting and Communicating with My Son

Danielle C. Dallo of Southfield felt lost and alone in her efforts to connect with her son, Daniel, who has autism. But with help from Easter Seals Michigan, she and Daniel have made huge strides.

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At school, Daniel knows no strangers," explains his mom Danielle C. Dallo of her son who's now a second-grader in Southfield. "He gives everyone high fives from the principal to the janitors. Everyone knows who Daniel is and he knows everyone." But getting to the point where Daniel knows and interacts with those around him hasn't been an easy journey.

Getting a diagnosis

When Daniel was just a baby his mother began noticing that he didn't seem to respond to her voice or touch. "It seemed like he just wasn't paying attention," Dallo recalls. But when Dallo's second child, a daughter, was born about a year and a half later, she knew something had to be wrong. Dallo saw her daughter developing in ways her son never had. He had yet to utter any words. Not even "mama" or "bye-bye."

At 2½ years old Daniel began receiving early intervention treatment through the school district. Dallo lists off the treatments for Daniel, whose condition at that point had been ruled as developmental delays. "Let's see, there was OT, PT and ST," which Dallo explains stands for occupation therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. In his second year of intervention services through the school Daniel was diagnosed with autism and the school suggested that Dallo give Easter Seals a call.

"I don't mind sharing with people that when I found out about Daniel's diagnosis, it was so hard," says Dallo. "I didn't know any other parents with kids with autism. Most people just didn't talk about it. I did a lot of research on my own." Dallo says she didn't know how to help her son during those early days when a trip to Target could lead to a meltdown. "It could be anything that would set him off – the lights in the store, the smells, the people," says Dallo, who recalls having to abandon her cart and leave the store to help her son settle down.

P.L.A.Y. Project

As part of Easter Seals services for early intervention with children on the autism spectrum, Daniel began participating in the P.L.A.Y. Project™. P.L.A.Y. stands for Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters and involves a Home Consultant from Easter Seals coming to the family's home on a regular basis. During these in-home visits, the specialist teaches the family how to interact with their child, giving them simple ideas and tips. He or she will also videotape the family during each visits and offer positive feedback and tips for improvement and educating parents of where their child is functioning.

"The P.L.A.Y. Project focuses on the social and emotional development of children with autism, which is the biggest deficit for a lot of kids on the spectrum," explains Kathie Klingensmith, the Children's Developmental Therapies and Services Supervisor for Easter Seals Michigan. "They struggle to make connections within their family, with their parents. We try to alter the way parents interact with their children to improve those relationships."

Klingensmith – or Miss Kathie – as many of her families know her, has worked with the Dallo family since Daniel first began receiving services through Easter Seals. Many children with autism have holes in their development. "We try to fill in those holes," says Klingensmith.

As young children develop, language is often a natural part of interacting with others. But since children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with these pivotal interactions, their language skills lag behind their peers, if they develop at all. "Instead of teaching kids on the autism spectrum about words, we teach them how to communicate," Klingensmith says.

Pointing, using pictures, and other forms of communication can stand in for words. "Unless they have motor difficulties, for many kids the language naturally begins to come out when we start working with them," she adds.

The child's view

Klingensmith teaches parents how to interact with their child on the autism spectrum by helping them understand their child's perspective. "We have lots of different techniques that can help educate parents as to how their child sees the world," she says.

One of these techniques is simply observing what fascinates your child and then trying to start a dialogue about it. "What does the child do over and over again?" says Klingensmith. For example, if they like to see a wheel go around and around, watch it with them. Then comment on what you see, talk about how it affects you, how it makes you feel. "By talking about what they're seeing, you're helping them have an understanding about their world." She notes that these conversations, even if they may seem one-sided, help a child grasp how experiences fit in a larger picture. "But it should also be fun!" reminds Klingensmith.

"The P.L.A.Y. Project has just given us ideas about how to engage Daniel," says Dallo. A manual customized for her family on how to help her son has been particularly valuable, she says. Through her family's time in the program she's seen a change come not over just Daniel, but also their family.

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