Carter Phelps is 21-months old and wears an ear-to-ear smile across his face.
Like many kids his age, he’s fascinated by the world around him. It’s a world he tries to explore by reaching new heights – often physically, as he tries to climb up – or into- anything in sight.
For his parents, their focus is on heights of a different variation.
“[In that 12-15 month age range] there are certain milestones you expect the child to reach such as gesturing and joint attention, and a few more words besides ‘momma and dadda,’” explained Christina Phelps, Carter’s mother.
At around 14 months, Christina and her husband Evan realized Carter was not reaching those milestones.
After meeting with their doctor and going over the tests, Carter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“It’s a devastating diagnosis to receive. No parent wants to hear that their child has a neurological disorder that really impairs communication and socialization,” Christina Phelps explained.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism.
It's what makes Project SKILLS at the Moody College at the University of Texas so important.
“We teach the parents. So we go from having an hour-long session with a child to an hour-long session with the parent but they can utilize their newly-learned skills throughout the entire day, through the weekend,” explained Dr. Madhu Sundarrajan, a clinical assistant professor with the program.
The grant-funded eight-week session works on socialization and therapy skills and is free for all participating families.
“It’s a play-based intervention. It’s all at the child’s level, and what the child’s interested in. We spend so much time telling our kids what to do ‘do this, do this, do this,’ and this sort of reverses that, and says ‘let’s get down at your child’s level and let them tell you what to do. Let’s get them motivated,” said Dr. Jessica Franco, a clinical assistant professor at the UT Speech and Hearing Center.
Last year, it worked with 10 families. This year, it’s working with more than 100, with about half of them outside the Austin-area.
“We can do video conferencing, so for families in rural areas or outside areas of Austin that can’t make it to a center for therapy, they can participate on their computer at home,” said Dr. Franco.
Moving forward, they hope to work with families in more rural areas, where such services are typically tougher to receive.
They also provide iPads and internet access to those families who cannot make it to in-person sessions and cannot afford video conferencing technology.
Carter and his parents are five weeks through the program and are already seeing results.
“The hours of effective therapy quadruples. You have [parents] working with children during bedtime, dinner time. So instead of receiving an hour [of therapy], the parent is actively engaging, actively working on building the child’s language skills,” said Dr. Sundarrajan.
“Carter’s in therapy 30-35 hours a week. And [this program] is great because I can come home, and continue these lessons at home, and as a parent, feel like I’m contributing more to him growing as an individual and being able to learn those skills that are so important in life,” said Evan Phelps.
“I think a lot of his tantrums stemmed from his lack of communication. Now that he has a few basic words under his belt to communicate his basic needs, we've noticed a reduction for sure,” said Christina Phelps.
They're small steps at the beginning of a journey.
“They're still your kid, and they're still going to live an amazing life,” said Evan Phelps.
“It's just a different journey than we thought, and it's getting better already,” said Christina Phelps.
To learn more about the program, click here.