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Alexa: Autism Program Changes Toddler’s Life


When Alexa first entered Rady Children’s Toddler School, she didn’t speak at all. Now nearly two years later, she speaks, reads in English and Spanish, and plays piano.

When Alexa Ortiz was barely one year old, her mother, Cynthia, suspected she wasn’t developing normally.

“Alexa is an only child, but as a mom, I just knew something was wrong,” said Cynthia. “She had no vocabulary, no eye contact, never showed any emotions. She was trapped in her own little world.”

Cynthia read a magazine article about symptoms of autism, and when Alexa matched 10 out of 10 symptoms, she panicked. She learned through research that Rady Children’s Developmental Evaluation Clinic was the best place to diagnose autism or similar disorders, so she made an immediate appointment.

Meghan Lukasik, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Developmental Evaluation Clinic at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, evaluated Alexa.

“We assessed her level of development and compared it to what we would expect it to be for a child her age,” explains Dr. Lukasik. “We used standardized developmental measures that evaluated her cognitive ability, language, motor skills, social and emotional functioning.”

Alexa was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The incidence of autism is increasing dramatically. In California, more than 18,000 children have been diagnosed with ASD, and nationally one in 150 children will be diagnosed with it. In San Diego County, projecting current incidence rates, approximately 267 new children will be born each year with ASD.

ASD is a developmental disorder that is characterized by delays in communication skills, difficulty with social interaction and other behavioral symptoms.

After Alexa’s diagnosis, she was referred to the Rady Children’s Autism Intervention Center, where she received early intervention. At 21 months, Alexa and her mother participated in Parent-Child Developmental Behavior Therapy — a parent education and training program designed to increase Alexa’s interaction, communication and play skills. Soon thereafter, Alexa began attending Rady Children’s Toddler School, an educational program for children 18 months to three years of age designed to integrate typically developing toddlers and toddlers at high risk for autism or related disorders. The curriculum focuses on teaching communication and cognitive and social skills, while fostering independence in daily activities for all children involved.

Cynthia said Alexa spent a little over a year in the Toddler School five days a week, four hours a day. She also received treatment from a private service that came to the Ortiz’ home twice a week for one hour in the afternoon, and she received speech and behavioral therapy through Rady Children’s autism program.

“She had to learn everything that other children learn by imitation,” said Cynthia. “When she started the school she didn’t speak at all. At age 3, on her last day of school, she was singing, dancing and talking fluidly—it was amazing.”

In September 2009, Rady Children’s launched the Autism Discovery Institute, which houses a diagnostic and treatment center for children of all ages with ASD and an expanded Rady Children’s Toddler School.

The Toddler School inclusion program for children ages 18 to 36 months will expand from one classroom to two in 2009, and then to three by 2010. The inclusion model will also be extended to two classrooms for children 3 to 5 years old, providing a continuum of care for children 18 months to 5 years of age.

“We created the Autism Discovery Institute because we wanted families to feel they have a home base to get the help they need for their child,” said Kristin Gist, senior director of Developmental Services at Rady Children’s. “Developmental evaluations, intervention programs, parent support and occupational and speech therapy will be located in one convenient location. An autism coordinator will be available to help families access services and resources at both Rady Children’s and elsewhere in the community.”

Aubyn Stahmer, Ph.D., research director for the Autism Discovery Institute, conducted a recent study evaluating whether the Toddler School program is effective at helping toddlers with autism learn and communicate like a typically developing child.

“Children are assessed when they come into the program and when they leave, so we are able to see that early intervention really is working,” said Dr. Stahmer.

“As evidence of this success, 65 percent of our children are enrolled in regular education classrooms by elementary school.”

The five inclusion classrooms of the Toddler School program will be called Alexa’s PLAYC (Playful Learning Academy for Young Children) to honor the Ortiz family.

“My husband and I are very committed to Rady Children’s because we want to help other families have the opportunities we had at the Autism Center,” said Cynthia. “Alexa has come so far thanks to the early intervention of the Toddler School. She is 4½ years old and reads and writes perfectly, she plays the piano, goes to karate and loves to swim and have play dates with other children her age—quite amazing accomplishments.”

Alexa, who speaks, reads and writes in English and Spanish, attends kindergarten for typically developing children.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Kids’ Newsday, October 2009