Autism group helps at home

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— Jack English, 5, wants a waffle, and tells his mother, Denise English, and teacher, Diane Schaefer, by handing them a picture of a waffle.

Jack is autistic. He started talking when he was young, then stopped when he was 18 months old. Denise worked on teaching him sign language, but his fine motor skills weren't strong enough.

Now, with the help of teacher Schaefer, Jack is learning picture exchange therapy, a bridge to using language. He chooses a small picture from a book of more than a dozen choices, then puts it on a card after the words "I want" and brings it to Schaefer.

He's learning to repeat the word as he asks for it, and sometimes can say the full phrase: "I want waffle."

Schaefer's training and assistance to families is made possible through the Yampa Valley Autism Program's new "Home Program."

"This is the piece that was really missing in Steamboat for a long time," said Janna Marxuach-Steur, who helped start the Yampa Valley Autism Program with Denise English.

Not only does Schaefer work with children, but she helps parents better understand how to teach their children, Marxuach-Steur said.

The Yampa Valley Autism Program was established to raise funds to assist children with autism spectrum disorders and their families. The cost of helping children with autism rises quickly as parents face a variety of needs, such as occupational and speech therapy.

The disorders affect people in various ways, but many children have difficulty with some basic skills, from organizational to social skills. For instance, it might be difficult for a child to sit at a table and eat, or to go into a store, or to use the bathroom. That's where the home program and Schaefer come in.

"If he sits at the table, that's one step," Denise English said about Jack. "If he'll actually use a spoon, that's another step."

Schaefer has taken on the role of a home teacher part-time and currently is paid mostly by parents. The Yampa Valley Autism Program is working to secure grants to fund Schaefer's work, but donations also could help fund her training and work.

It took five weeks of work to get Jack to sit at his desk to do three puzzles, but when he accomplished that, the work was more than worth it, Schaefer said.

Through the picture exchange therapy, Jack can learn some of those skills, as well as how to speak. The Yampa Valley Autism Program paid for Schaefer to go to a training on the program in the fall, and she now works with several children using those skills.

For Schaefer, the work is her passion, so the part-time pay has been manageable for now. She has literally dreamed about the day Jack will talk -- in the dream, he told her, "'I can talk, no one can understand me yet, but I can talk,'" Schaefer said. She is confident that talking will come to him soon.

Donations can be made by calling Marxuach-Steur at 871-1418.

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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