"Brilliant Minds"

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Autism is a brain disorder that affects thousands of families in the Panhandle. It first appears in early childhood. Once thought to be incurable, it is now considered to be a treatable disability. A local doctor says her own autistic child has inspired her to help others.

"Her first year of life was excellent, just like every other child."

Dr. Ana Leurinda was already the mother of two boys, so she and her husband Marion were thrilled to have a healthy little girl born in 1998, but less than 15 months later Dr. Leurinda noticed small but significant changes in her daughter’s development.

"I noticed the eye contact came down, the words that she used to say, she was no longer saying and she was not interested in playing with other children."

Nicole underwent several evaluations, eventually receiving the diagnosis of autism. Dr. Leurinda says the family was devastated. Then, at two and a half, Nicole began a very aggressive therapy program, spending 40 hours a week working with behavior therapists. The therapy was intensive, time consuming and expensive, but Nicole began making huge strides.

"That's what got me started. Seeing and believing that my daughter's going to be ok and that every child can get better, improve their circumstances so that they can become independent adults vs. being in an institution."

Motivated by her daughter’s progress, Dr. Leurinda began a non-profit clinic in Destin. “Brilliant Minds” is dedicated to children with autism and related disabilities.

As a physician, Dr. Leurinda spends much of her time clearing up misconceptions about autism.

"Autism is an illness that can get better. There are many people who have returned to normalization after intensive treatment. Every child can learn. I never expected my daughter to be potty trained, speaking in sentences or going to a regular school, it can happen."

In the next part of this series, we’ll take you inside the clinic to see the progress Nicole is making and we’ll look at the kind of therapy Dr. Leurinda is making affordable for autistic children throughout the Panhandle.