UCI Center’s Autism Research
The hardest hurdle to clear when growing up with a sibling diagnosed with autism, according to Arika Abdalian, is communication. Her younger brother, Eric, was prone to repetitive behavior and had difficulty verbalizing his needs to his family, which often led to tantrums. Such misunderstandings often strain family relations, which is precisely what the program, For OC Kids, hopes to combat.
The For OC Kids Neurodevelopmental Center, a joint project between the UC Irvine Medical Center’s Department of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, caters to an extensive variety of learning and developmental disorders in children, such as autism.
The organization’s specialists, comprised of individuals capable in a wide range of backgrounds, consist of pediatricians, social workers, psychologists and speech-language pathologists.
The key to treating autism, according to Judy Burton, Administrative Director of For OC Kids, is early intervention. The center’s Infant Screening Project, for instance, highlights the organization’s approach to tackling autism.
The study aims to set up a method to detect autism in children younger than six months through comprehensive developmental evaluations.
Because patients can span the autism spectrum from mild symptoms to more serious conditions, For OC Kids offers a variety of services.
Occupational therapy, for example, focuses on directed coordination and perception. Speech and language therapy, designed for children like Eric in particular, helps develop the ability to interact in a social environment.
Applied Behavioral Analysis, which helps reduce restrictive behavior, is another mode of therapy that children with autism frequently respond to.
Such therapeutic measures largely benefit the family as well as the patient.
“It has helped us to communicate and it has made it easier for me to understand his needs and wants,” Abdalian said. “Eric understands everything; he only cannot verbally communicate with you. The therapy also helped his physical actions through gestures and motion.”
In addition to providing medical assessment, diagnosis, and treatment for autistic children, the center is also devoted to supporting and advocating for their families. Support, Education & Empowerment for Parents of Autistic Children (SEEPAC), a collaboration with the Regional Center of Orange County, is a six-week long training program aimed at helping parents learn more about autism and interventions.
Instructed by Nurse Practitioner, Teri Book and Parent Support and Education Program Manager, Hedy Hansen, each session features a new topic about therapy and parenting. The center also works closely with each child’s school district to formulate an individual education plan (IEP) in order to meet the educational needs of the child as best possible.
“We provide individual family support here at For OC Kids,” Burton said. “Families can have consultations with family support coordinators, which help to navigate the services needed by our kids. It shows parents that they can play a huge role in helping with their children’s therapy by understanding autism.”
Abdalian’s family has done just that. Integrating him into everyday family responsibilities, such as sorting the groceries and spare change, has worked wonders for their communication.
“He laughs and smiles when I joke around with him. He has feelings like everyone and expresses them like everyone. The night before I left for college, he understood I was leaving and threw a tantrum,” said Abdalian of her younger brother. “He slept next to me that night because he understood I was leaving.”