Transforming a future word by word

“I love you.”  

This three-word phrase from a 5-year-old boy conveys more than just a simple emotion. It’s the culmination of years of hard work by one family and a team of therapists at Marcus Autism Center to help young London learn how to express himself. 

Developmental delays or something more serious

London’s mother, Rachel, and his grandmother, Lisa, started to notice some differences with London before he was 2. He wasn’t talking yet, and he’d hold his toys close to his face while playing. He tracked along walls when he walked. Like most families, they held out hope that maybe he was just a late bloomer and that his development would eventually catch up. “You walk that line of denial to a certain point,” Rachel said. At each of London’s yearly check-ups, his pediatrician encouraged them to wait, hinting that he may just be developmentally delayed. 

By the time he turned 3 and was still nonverbal, the family knew they had to act. “If doctors had thought there was a chance London might have had cancer, we wouldn’t have waited for more information every year,” Lisa said. So, the family found a developmental pediatrician who accepted insurance and prepared for the visit. London’s family was overwhelmed once the official diagnosis came in. 

“The amount of information out there on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is staggering, and it’s scattered everywhere with a thousand different ways to approach it,” Rachel said. Navigating the world of ASD treatment alone can be emotionally overwhelming, too. “It’s like a dark tunnel, and you’re not sure where it goes, or if there’s a light at the end of it.” Lisa said. “Or even if it’s the right tunnel to follow.” 

Before starting at Marcus Autism Center, London communicated little and was content to play quietly by himself. “You’d have to get down and enter his world to see what he was understanding,”
Rachel said.  By this time, London could use just five words. 

Getting specialized autism treatment

London’s first experience at Marcus Autism Center was in the Feeding Program. Children with autism often experience difficulties with tasting, swallowing and selecting food. The program implemented a scientific-based process to help with introducing new foods. London was a quick learner, and the staff made breakthroughs in helping ease him into the textures of different fruits. He eats almost everything now and has a special love for apples. 

After finishing the Feeding Program, London began at the Language and Learning Program. Three times a week for two and a half hours, he has intensive one-on-one sessions at Marcus Autism Center that use an approach to learning called applied behavior analysis (ABA). London is incredibly sweet natured and gentle, and his desire to succeed is reflected in everything he does. When he has successes he loves praise from his therapists and family. 

The difference words can make

“He’s learned that communication is valuable because he can tell us what he needs,” Lisa said. “Talking has greatly reduced the amount of times he gets frustrated.” Comprehension for London has never been in question—he just couldn’t verbalize to his family what was going on in his mind. 

Little by little, London has learned how to communicate in a way he understands, thanks to ABA. While it looks like they’re playing with him, his therapists are actually using evidence-based scientific approaches to help London express himself. 

Watching them work, one sees first and foremost their dedication—as well as their seemingly limitless reserves of kind patience. “There’s nobody here who wouldn’t give the world for these kids,” Lisa said. “It’s not just a job for them; it’s their passion.”  

London is doing remarkably well at the Language and Learning Clinic—his team has had to reset his goals because he’s already exceeded most of them. In less than a year at the center, London has learned how to form three- to four-word sentences. “He’s like a different child now,” his mother said. “He can tell me just about anything that he needs.” 

Blossoming confidence

Intellectually, as a 5-year-old, London has already surpassed many kids his own age. He can count to 100, he excels at matching and he can even add. In other ways, however, he’s behind his peers. He doesn’t understand what birthdays are, for example. “In some ways he’s 7,” Rachel said. “And in some ways he’s 2 or 3. It’s hard to put a specific age on him as far as expectations go.” 

Throughout his treatment, London’s family has watched his self-confidence absolutely blossom. Now, he can answer people at stores or in restaurants if they talk to him. London is also very polite. When he asks for milk, he’ll say, “Drink milk, please.” “He may not have the vocabulary of a typically developing child, but he most definitely has manners,” Lisa said. 

The role of donors in London’s success

Philanthropic support not only helps change the lives and futures of kids like London, but it also helps take the strain off of the families of children with ASD. London’s scholarship has been life-changing for his family. His mother worked two jobs for years to help pay for his treatment prior to getting into the center.

Private therapy bills add up quickly at $150/hour. “Having a child is expensive, and everyone prepares for that reality,” Rachel said. “But most people aren’t aware of how expensive it is to help a child with ASD achieve a quality of life that other families take for granted—and that every kid deserves.”  

Indeed, right now the average lifetime cost of a child with ASD is $3.5 million. London’s father worked equally hard, and Lisa quit her job to help take care of London and ensure he makes all of his treatment appointments. 

“It’s because of someone else’s generosity that my child will have the future he deserves,” Rachel said. “My entire family is out there working as hard as we can for London, but we couldn’t do this without Marcus Autism Center.”