Shrouded in mystery, autism is one of the fastest growing disabilities in the United States. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in 50 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The CDC data shows an increase from the previous estimate of one in 88, with boys four times as likely as girls to be diagnosed. "ASDs are reported to occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups," reported the CDC.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life, affecting a child's ability to communicate and interact with others. Defined by a certain set of behaviors, autism manifests differently in each individual.
“Joshua has made huge progress in his two years at the center,” said Howard Greenberg. “He still has autism, but now he can communicate some of his needs and desires.” Pictured are (left to right) Skills Trainer Vanessa Castro, Joshua Greenberg and Behavioral Intervention Specialist Tina Cote.
Photo courtesy of the Maui Autism Center
The misunderstandings, false assumptions and myths surrounding autism can be overwhelming for families who must navigate its complicated world.
"When parents receive an autism diagnosis from a developmental pediatrician, it can be one of the worst days of their life," said Howard Greenberg, founder of the Maui Autism Center in Kihei and father of an autistic son.
Many parents do not know where to turn. They are told that autism is permanent and that nothing can be done to help their child.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Greenberg.
"Many children can be helped to improve their situation," Greenberg said. "Some who have undergone years of intensive therapy have lost their diagnosis and gone on to graduate from college."
"I have personally seen children who could not talk when they came to the Maui Autism Center two years ago, who are speaking in full sentences today," he said.
Greenberg is a past president of Autism Bridges Maui, a community support group for parents with autistic children. Currently, he is treasurer for La'akea Foundation, a 13-acre farm community for adults with special needs. He is also the treasurer for Horizons Academy, a school in Ha'iku for children with special needs.
"Autism is a neurological disorder that affects many different areas of the brain," said Greenberg.
Characteristics associated with autism include repetitive behavior, restricted interest and resistance to change, as well as unusual responses to sensory experiences.
"There is no simple fix," Greenberg said. "It takes thousands of hours of different therapies to make a difference, but what a difference the effort makes."
"I have personally witnessed my own son Joshua's huge progress," said Greenberg. "He still has autism, but now he can communicate some of his needs and desires.
"Plus," he said, "medical experts told me my son would never call me 'daddy.' Well, now he calls me 'daddy' all the time."
"Each child should be provided with individualized treatment programs designed to improve his [or her] deficit areas," said Dr. Catherine Minch, workshop supervisor from the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, an organization with global outreach.
Through quarterly visits to the island, Dr. Minch provides behavioral service consultations for the Maui Autism Center, offering the latest scientifically proven behavioral services to patients and their families.
"The Maui center is a safe and nurturing environment that is customized to each child's individual needs," she said.
"We excel at making learning fun," said Denise Greenberg, executive director of the Maui Autism Center.
"We offer a trained staff, top-notch autism experts, individualized curriculum, speech and language pathology, occupational therapy, counseling behavioral support, parent training, progress reports, with quarterly parent-staff workshops," she said.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the notable treatment approaches used at the center. ABA offers picture exchange, also known as social stories, which teach the children how to behave in certain social situations. Such learning and preparation are key to success out in the community.
At the Maui Autism Center, many lives have been changed for the better, as little gains become big accomplishments.
"We cried the first time our son wrote his name, rode a horse or swam across a swimming pool," said Denise. "To this day, I still marvel and think back on just how far he and all the children at the center have come."
"Our son has been given a chance to make it on an island that really doesn't have much help for a child like ours," said a parent who searched for three-and-a-half years for something that would really work.
"The center and staff are unique and a blessing to parents who don't know where to turn for help," he said. "Our son began improving immediately through the scientifically proven method of ABA and other therapies, along with much kindness and compassion."
"In a number of aspects, the things taught and the activities at the center are just like those in a traditional school," said Tina Cote, behavioral intervention specialist at the Maui Autism Center.
"However, we teach them in a different way because our kids learn differently," she said. Cote emphasized the importance of working with the disorder, not against it.
"We hope that as more people become aware that autism is now an epidemic, they will take time to educate themselves on this disorder," said Cote.
Meanwhile, the Maui Autism Center continues its indispensible mission.