Erik Lira hasn’t been smacked in the leg with a milk jug in a while.
That was his son’s way of communicating.
But over the past year, Erik and his wife, Ivonne, have seen a change in their 3-year-old son Joshua, thanks to Early Foundations, a specialized program for children with autism.
“Before he went to Early Foundations, if he wanted something — let’s say he wanted milk — he would go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, get the milk and come hit you with the milk,” Erik Lira said. “When he started with Early Foundations, he started pointing, that was the first progress we saw.”
Early Foundations is a model pre-school program that uses evidence-based practices to help Oklahoma children with autism 4 years old and younger work on their speech and development.
The program faces a questionable future after losing $420,000 after the state Education Department made funding cuts as a result of the federal sequester last year.
The program has helped more than 30 children with autism and trained more than 800 education professionals over the past two years to take what they learned back to their communities.
As Early Foundations leaders scramble to find funding through private foundations and local fundraising efforts, families like the Liras wonder what’s next for young children with autism in Oklahoma.
At 14 months old, Joshua Lira was only able to saw a few words. He wouldn’t respond to his name, and his parents had trouble getting his attention. Ivonne and Erik Lira weren’t sure what to do.
They first took Joshua to an ear doctor, but the doctor said his ears were fine. “Maybe he’s just spoiled, and that’s why he doesn’t want to talk,” the doctor told the Liras about their youngest of three children.
Next, they went to a speech therapist, where they learned about Early Foundations.
Joshua is considered nonverbal and communicates by choosing pictures from a book that show what he wants.
On a recent Thursday at Early Foundations, the book sits next to him as Joshua works with Liz Moore, program coordinator at Early Foundations.
Moore takes a few yellow, green and blue square blocks and builds a small structure.
“Copy me,” she asks Joshua.
He takes his set of the same blocks and builds the same structure. Moore praises him and rewards him with a round of singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” She takes hold of his arms, and they rock back and forth. Joshua scrunches his nose and smiles as Moore sings.
“Life is but a —,” Moore pauses and bends down to Joshua.
He makes a small sound like, “Dream.”
“That’s right,” Moore says to him. “I like how you said ‘dream.’”
At 9:30 a.m., children who do not have autism begin to trickle into the classroom. Today, the children will play together, teaching the children with and without autism and children about interacting with each other.
There’s singing, jumping, hopping, dancing and running. Children with autism are encouraged to participate in their way.
In Joshua’s classroom, a few children with autism sit at the front of a singing circle on the floor. If one of them strays or loses focus, Moore helps them try again.
“Inclusion benefits all kids,” Moore said. “It’s one of the best anti-bullying campaigns you can have because we’re accepting of all differences, and what we find here is that our typical kids walk away accepting differences, being super friends and really saying, ‘Just because you use pictures to communicate doesn’t mean you’re any different.’”
Research shows that children with autism who have early intervention have better outcomes later in life, said Bonnie McBride, associate professor in the pediatrics department at OU Health Sciences Center.
However, that early intervention must be a specific type of evidence-based research that addresses children with autism’s areas of deficit, including socialization, communication and behavior, she said.
“We’re getting some good evidence that suggests we may be actually physiologically changing the brain structure by exposing them to this intervention really early,” McBride, who helped create Early Foundations, said. “ ... Basically, I think what’s being said is early intervention is critical, that spending resources early on can really change the trajectory in terms of how independent they can be, how included they can be in their school communities and how willing people are to include them.”
McBride was recruited to Oklahoma in 2007 to start autism spectrum specialty care and created a team to establish four model early intervention sites in Oklahoma City, Norman, Tulsa and Mustang.
More than 32 children on the autism spectrum younger than 4 have completed the intervention and at least that many are currently receiving services in these “model” pre-school centers.
The centers employ 28 teachers who work directly with the children, along with a team of specialists who teach their techniques and strategies to educators and other professionals all across the state.
The Oklahoma Autism Center for Applied Research and Training is a program through the University of Oklahoma’s Child Study Center. The autism center has received $600,000 in each year for the past eight years through the state Department of Education, according to the center.
Rene Axtell, the assistant state superintendent of special education services, said the funding cut to Early Foundations came as a result of the federal sequester, automatic federal spending cuts that made news headlines in 2013.
School districts in Oklahoma faced an $8 million reduction in federal money, and the state Education Department chose to cut in several areas of its budget in an attempt to ensure that districts would not have to layoff staff, including in their special education programs.
Axtell said the agency looked at all of its contracts and cut “duplicative services.”
Parents and families can receive services like what Early Foundations provides through school-based programs and private entities, Axtell said.
“We’ve heard from a lot of districts that they were very thankful we were able to look at continuing the flow of dollars to them so that they would continue to keep employes employed to serve children with disabilities, as well as to continue to their level of special education programs they had previously been providing,” Axtell said.
Joshua’s mother Ivonne Lira said when she was trying to find services to help her son, she could not find anything like Early Foundations.
The Liras are concerned about whether Joshua will lose what he has learned once he enters public school. They worry that teachers will lose patience with him or leave him out because of the difficulties that he faces sometimes because of his autism.
Ivonne Lira calls Early Foundations her “little piece of heaven” for Joshua.
“We wish we had the support of the state most of all,” Erik Lira said. “We’re trying to see what we could do as parents, because, I mean, we could just say, ‘Thank God our son he already went there, and he passed,’ and forget about it, but we want the same thing that Early Foundations has done for our son to have for other families as well.”
“We’re trying to see what we could do as parents, because, I mean, we could just say, ‘Thank God our son he already went there, and he passed,’ and forget about it, but we want the same thing that Early Foundations has done for our son to have for other families as well.”