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.’”