Kam grabs a slice of “watermelon” from the play food on his family’s coffee table. He pretends to eat it, then offers some to Ricky, his dad.
It’s more than a happy family moment, says Susannah Major, a Speech Language Pathologist with Northwest Center Kids. “This is huge,” she enthuses. “Pretend play is such a prerequisite for language.”
Kam was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder after his family became concerned that he wasn’t talking at age 2, says his mother Christine. Now, after nearly a year of services from specialists inducing those from Northwest Center Kids, Kam is communicating through signing, gestures, and a bit of speech.
But it’s rare for families to receive a diagnosis and therapy before their child turns 3. Though signs of autism can be present as early as six months old, most children aren’t diagnosed until they’re 3 or older. Then there can be a long wait for services—Christine recalls that many local providers had waitlist of more than two years.
That’s why Northwest Center Kids plans to launch EPIC (Expanding, Play, Interaction and Communication), a program that will support children with autism or social communication delays to better engage with parents, peers and the community, while also helping ensure that signs of autism are recognized as early as possible.
“Early detection and supports are vital to the long-term development and success of children with autism,” says Laura Kneedler, Vice President of Education & Therapy Services.
“With EPIC, we’ll be able to provide a wider variety of services,” says Special Educator Shannon Clark, “even if families are on a waitlist for a diagnosis.”
“Northwest Center has taught us patience and the ability to communicate with Kam, which we at first struggled with,” says Ricky. “We were interactive and loving before, but we thought, ‘Maybe he’ll just break out of it and start talking.’”
"Now instead of asking Kam to ‘Give me a kiss’ to get what he wants, we’re asking him to point to what he wants or use the sign for 'milk,'" says Christine.
Adds Major, “We’re meeting Kam where he can be successful.”
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