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Stories by Laurie Lucas
The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, California

The University Center for Developmental Disabilities helps autistic children to control behavior and to socialize.
Derry O'Dell snaps Legos together at a table where he sits with his teacher assistant, Page Brandt. Every so often, she rubs his head, pats his shoulder and repeats, "Good job."
She's rewarding Derry for building a garage without slipping his self-control gear, for persevering at play. In the lingo of special education, he's "staying on task."

The pair work in a trailer tucked away in a corner of the campus at California State University, San Bernardino. There are 12 children in two rooms: one room with six Macintosh computers; the other with tables, chairs, puzzles, toys, books and games. Modular walls separate each play station. This environment is part of the University Center for Developmental Disabilities, a behavior modification program for autistic children. The service is so successful and in such demand, there's a six-month waiting list of 30 children.


Program developer Stanley L. Swartz, says the major goals are improving communication, socialization and behaviors targeted by the parents, such as head banging, hand flapping, rocking and screaming.
"These are the most difficult children to work with," he says.

Early intervention can help a child suffering from autism to get into a regular school by helping both the parents and the child cope with the symptoms.

T
he angelic-looking 6 1/2-year-old boy with blond hair and missing teeth rattles off all the planets, their moons and positions from the sun. He shows off his mobile of the solar system.
"Oh my gosh, that's a magnetic field," he says, studying a book of the planets. Suddenly, Derry O'Dell has no patience to play. He's at his grandparents' home in Moreno Valley and grandma promised to take him berry picking after a visitor leaves.


"Go Home," Derry tells the guest. "Go home now." His voice rises, his face reddens; he teeters on the brink of a tantrum.
Because he has autism, a severe neurological disability, Derry doesn't throw fits, defy directives or burst into tears in order to steal attention. He can't help it. This is the way he is wired. His brain buffers him from easy interactions with other people and struggles to receive and transmit language.

 

Quietly and calmly, Sandy Sebree, 52, manages to avert meltdown by turning off her grandson's out-of-control switch. She doesn't raise her voice or scold Derry. Instead, she ignores his anger, affectionately pats his shoulder and shifts gears, steering talk into his model-car collection.
The diversion works for a little while.
Derry scampers off and returns with his '55 pink Chevy. "I'm going to drive a Corvette," he says. Grandma gives him another loving squeeze on the shoulder.

Continue...

Dr. Swartz was the director of the University Center for Developmental Disabilites from 1994-1997.

Stanley L. Swartz, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
5500 University Parkway
California State University
San Bernardino, CA 92407-2397
Tel.: 909-880-5601
Fax: 909-862-4045
EMail:
sswartz@wiley.csusb.edu