Yampa Valley Autism Program’s annual fundraiser is Saturday | SteamboatToday.com

Yampa Valley Autism Program’s annual fundraiser is Saturday

Nicole Inglis

Kealia Buschmann is seen in Yosemite in 2011. Kealia was diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder in May 2011, and her parents contacted the Yampa Valley Autism Program, a local nonprofit that provides services and support to local families with children suffering from an autism spectrum disorder. The nonprofit's annual fundraising event is at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

— In many ways, 5-year-old Kealia Buschmann is no different from other kids her age.

She's excited and curious about the world around her. She's crazy about snowboarding, a new hobby she picked up this winter, and she had a blast on a trip to Hawaii with her family last week.

But Kealia doesn't respond to nonverbal social cues the way other children her age do. She has trouble reading anger, sadness, annoyance or happiness in another person's tone of voice and body language. Her parents also noticed it takes Kealia longer to learn physical skills like snowboarding and swimming.

It wasn't until May 2011 that her parents, Jonny and Tiana, received a confirmed diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disorder, a disability characterized by problems with nonverbal communication skills, social skills and fine motors skills.

"Once we found out, it was a relief to know," Tiana Buchmann said. "But it's very overwhelming. You know your life's going to be different."

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From the outside, Nonverbal Learning Disorder looks much like an autism spectrum disorder, and some doctors think it is. Buschmann wasn't concerned with the exact classification as much as she was with finding help as soon as she could.

She contacted the Yampa Valley Autism Program, a local nonprofit organization that provides services and support to about 60 local families with children suffering from an autism spectrum disorder. The organization saw a 30 percent increase in need for services and therapy in 2011, and it recently had to institute a waiting list.

In the fall, Kealia began seeing social cognition specialist Jamie Cimo, or "Miss Jamie," as Kealia knows her.

The social therapy fills a gap that her speech and physical therapy hadn't covered.

"It's so she can understand how people are feeling," Buschmann said "And we've seen amazing progress over the past few months."

Buschmann said her daughter gets excited about going to therapy each week and is making strides in identifying emotions based on pictures of facial expressions. She's beginning to learn what behavior is expected of her in normal social situations.

"For most of us, it's very easy to understand, 'Oh, I'm standing too close to someone,' or, 'This person is annoyed with me,'" Buschmann said. "For her to learn these things is so important.

"We've seen her grow so much."

Raising awareness, funds

This weekend, the Yampa Valley Autism Program will host its annual fundraising event to support services like those Kealia receives.

The Mardi Gras Masquerade Ball is from 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

Yampa Valley Autism Program Executive Director Lu Etta Loeber said the price of one couple's ticket — $90 — could pay for one hour of critical therapy for a child with autism.

"Maybe that (therapy) makes dinner time a whole lot easier with the siblings and the parents, by giving them new ways to communicate with their parents," Loeber explained. Individual tickets are $50 and are available online at http://www.yampavalleyautism.org, at All That Jazz or by calling 970-870-4263.

Michael David Bauk will serve as the evening's emcee and auctioneer, and Colorado's blues and funk group Johnny O. Band will perform. Auction items include a gourmet dinner with limo service and a guitar signed by Bruce Springsteen. Freshies will cater with Cajun fare, and Cellar Liquors provides libations like hurricanes and wine.

Buschmann said the event is about more than fundraising. She hopes raising awareness about autism spectrum disorders will encourage compassion and understanding, so the next time someone sees a stranger's child throwing a tantrum in public, they might consider the family's situation.

"Any parent with a child with a disability will tell you every day is different," she said. "It's a lifelong thing. This isn't something she's going to grow out of and at age 18 all is going to be well. We have to do our best to prepare her to be an adult.

"I feel more confident in what we're doing. We're seeing progress, and that's really nice to know. There isn't a finish line for us. But there are milestones."

To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com

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