Parents of autistic children offered help in conference 

When Irma Velaquez’s son, Aaron, was a year old, he chattered and talked like most children his age. But by age 2, he became withdrawn and silent, and by 3 he was diagnosed with autism.

Diagnoses like Aaron’s are becoming increasingly common: One in 150 children is born with some degree of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While resources for families of autistic children were scarce 10 years ago, now there are so many — including Wings Learning Center, a school for autistic children that Velaquez founded in San Mateo five years ago — that parents may have a hard time navigating the choices.

In response, Jump Start Learning Center will host a conference for parents and teachers of autistic children March 9 that focuses on the latest and most proven techniques for helping young children overcome their symptoms and integrate with their more well-adjusted peers.

"Intensive early intervention, within the first three to seven years of life" is key to an autistic child’s success, according to Denise Pollard, director of Consultants for Learning and Autism Support Services in San Mateo. Likewise, it’s important for the child’s parent — not a nanny or baby sitter — to take responsibility for helping the child develop. After Aaron’s diagnosis, Velaquez spent 18 hours a day working with him.

"So many times, there’s so many things going on in life that it’s hard for parents to focus and embrace the techniques," Pollard said.

Autism is classified as a developmental disability caused in part by disorders of the nervous system, according to the American Psychological Association. Key symptoms include problems with speech and social interaction and limitations on imagination and activity.

Common treatment techniques, used in programs such as Pollard’s and Velaquez’s, include breaking down common tasks into smaller pieces so the autistic child can master them without becoming overwhelmed. Often, children’s own interests — autistic people are often fixated on a particular subject, such as trains or numbers — can be used to motivate them to learn in other areas, according to Pollard.

Educational developments such as these have allowed Aaron, now 13, more independence; he now rides the bus to school on his own and is more comfortable in public places that once gave him intense anxiety. However, he still doesn’t speak; he uses touch and a Dyna Vox speech device to communicate.

"Parents have to grieve and accept that they don’t have the child they thought they had," said Michelle Ficcaglia, director of Jump Start. "We try to show parents how their child is going to grow and develop, and how to find the hope."

Jump Start’s conference takes place March 9 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the San Mateo Marriott, 1770 South Amphlett Blvd., San Mateo.

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Beth Winegarner

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