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At the age of three, Diego, a “strong, healthy, happy little kid” according to his father Jorge, started to change. “He was speaking fluently,” recalls Jorge, “and then all of a sudden, he went quiet.” As part of a self-described “multi-national family” who had recently moved to the U.S. from overseas, parents Jorge and Lulu initially attributed Diego’s language regression to the fact that Diego heard multiple languages in his daily life, and was thus simply figuring out how best to communicate. However, Jorge and Lulu continued to witness a gradual decline in other behaviors; Diego preferred to play by himself and began scripting, a repetitive behavior that involves reciting lines from an individual’s favorite movies, TV shows, books, etc. Diego’s increasing struggles with speech and social skills, as well as an emerging food selectivity, prompted his pediatrician to recommend an assessment for autism, which ultimately led to his diagnosis at age four. “You feel like you were hit by a truck,” recalls Jorge. “You don’t see that one coming.”

Despite going through, as Jorge puts it, the initial “phases of change” around their son’s diagnosis, Jorge and Lulu never wavered in their unconditional acceptance and support of their special son. “Accept your kids because they are unique and they are yours,” asserts Lulu. “You have a beautiful present in front of you that is your child. You have the opportunity to change their life … and for sure they’re going to change your life first. For us, Diego is perfect.” Their assured, steadfast outlook reflects the strengths-based approach that infused Diego’s trajectory from the outset. “Kids with autism, they’re just wired differently. They have different talents and different ways of approaching the world,” states Jorge. “As a parent, you normally try to pull your kids along. But with kids like Diego, you have to meet them where they’re at. And then you can help them come out where you want them to be.”

Guided by the recommendation of a co-worker, Jorge and Lulu’s path led them to St. David’s Center, where Diego found speech, occupational and feeding therapies, autism day treatment, and a low-ratio classroom – all tailored to his needs. When Diego first began services, his therapists observed a quiet, withdrawn child with limited play skills and poor motor planning, which is the brain and muscles working together to plan for movement. Reflects Liz, his occupational therapist, “We explored movement with swinging, as well as heavy work and resistive play to ‘wake up’ his body.” As a result, Diego gained body awareness, more muscle strength, and endurance to sustain active play. In his autism day treatment (ADT) classroom, the therapists used his scripting as a launchpad to expand his play ideas and include peers in his play. “Diego absolutely blossomed in treatment!” recalls Leanne, one of his ADT therapists. “He transformed from a timid, quiet kid that tended to keep to himself to a funny, expressive, and sometimes even loud kid who loved to sing and act silly.” Adds occupational therapist Liz, “He was more engaged, his language began to expand, and his loveable personality began to shine.”

Diego’s remarkable metamorphosis is due, in large part, to the commitment and engagement of his family, including big brother Juan Pablo, or JP. The family consistently attended therapy sessions and applied their newfound knowledge at home, utilizing both in-center observations and in-home play sessions to fully understand and support Diego’s needs and treatment goals. “We tend to see the most progress in kids when their family feels supported and consistently participates in programming,” remarks therapist Liz. “Diego and his family are a prime example of this.” Feeding therapist Megan echoes this sentiment, referencing Diego’s weekly “family mealtime” in the St. David’s Kitchen – even virtually via telehealth. “Lulu, Jorge, and JP all learned how to better understand Diego’s interactions with foods, and ways to share mealtime in a more successful way,” she says.

Secure in the expertise of our therapists as they worked with Diego, his parents also witnessed the way his care was coordinated across therapies, with all parties working together to ensure the best possible outcome for Diego. At St. David’s Center, says ADT therapist Liz, “Multidisciplinary care coordination is a given!  We work alongside our Occupational and Speech Therapists, meeting with them regularly to discuss goals and strategies.” Lulu confirms this seamless approach to care coordination and access to shared information is pivotal to Diego’s success. “It is incredible, she says. “Everybody is in the same line, in the same direction.”

This level of coordinated support extended to Diego’s transition to kindergarten, involving not only all members of his St. David’s Center care team, but also support from outside resources such as PACER Center, a training and information center for families of children and youth with all disabilities, who helped Jorge and Lulu advocate for scheduling accommodations that allowed Diego to continue his St. David’s Center services while attending kindergarten in their school district. As Diego progresses along his educational continuum, the continued collaboration among all factions invested in his success is critical, because, as Lulu notes, “Diego has the same struggles in the same areas – at St. David’s, at the school, and at the house. We can work together.”

As for Diego, now a kindergartner, the progress has been transformational. Lulu remembers how she used to ask Diego’s therapist Kaitlin, “Do you think my son is going to speak one day?” Today, not only does Diego speak, he is able to engage with his family and peers without prompting, reveling in activities such as swimming, skiing – now outrunning his ski instructor – and the occasional snowball fight with friends. “For us,” affirms Jorge, “St. David’s Center has been a life changer.”


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