Conquering Autism, One Family at a Time: Part 1

By: Elizabeth Prann Email
By: Elizabeth Prann Email

Many local parents are beginning to get some help from several new efforts to help them understand Autism and provide their child with the appropriate therapy.

Children are being diagnosed with Autism at an alarming rate.

And for parents raising a child with Autism, life can be frustrating and exhausting.

But many local parents are beginning to get some help from several new efforts to help them understand Autism and provide their child with the appropriate therapy.

"We had concerns from an early age.... she was, not acting like other kids," said Guy and Tracy Berg whose 3-year old daughter Riley is Autistic.

Statistics vary - but the CDC or the Center of Disease Control most recent statistics show, 1 in every 150 kids is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Many families have no idea their child is Autistic, they're seeking diagnoses for other issues.

Now there is a free program in our area called FIRST WORDS Project. It's been in the area for no longer than a year and it's diagnosed more than 500 kids in Northwest Florida - one being Riley Berg.

"Many people say the autism spectrum really not from mild to severe it's more like a plad, it's just different degrees," said program director Julie Riley.

The program diagnoses children up to 3 years old.

Its funded by a 4-year CDC grant which Julie Riley says, is one of only 2 in the United States - an invaluable tool for families in our area.

But a parent's options don't stop when their child turns three.

Take five year old Seth Higby, he's been working with therapists from a program called Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA.

It's offered through Florida State University, Panama City.

"When Seth's cumulative graph first started he had zero and now he's like up to two thousand... [his improvements] are huge," said ABA clinical coordinator Megan DeLeon.

Seth was four years old before he slept through the night, ate his first full meal without a tummy ache, and stopped running from his mom in public...

His mother Julie Higby says it hasn't always been this way.

"I'm sure plenty of people have looked at us in the store and thought, she needs to get control of her kids, in fact I was probably one of those people. The fact is, you don't have control over them all of the time - you have to learn what motivates them," Higby said.

There are 11 FSU undergraduate and graduate students who work with about 20 local families every day of the week.

And as assistant professor Sarah Lechago will tell you, the changes they make are not only evident in each child, the progress is well documented and checked constantly.

"We see change and we need to be accountable to our families. When we come in here and we teach you things we really want to ensure and assure you we are making a real change," said Lechago.

If you watch a therapy session, it may look like common childhood games focusing on colors, animals, numbers and games.

But these therapist make small steps everyday and it these steps made now are proving to make big differences for autistic children.

"He has gone from, not being able to function at all to if you looked at him today he looks like a typical little boy," said Higby of 5-year old Seth.

ABA's success is partially due to generous donations -especially those of the George A. Butchikas Foundation for Autism.

Higby attributes her son's progress specifically to the foundation's generosity.



FSU College of Medicine FIRST WORDS Project 215-4331 (office) or

FIRST WORDS Project is an autism prevalence grant we received from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to screen children between the ages of 9 and 18 months in 12 Panhandle counties. It partners with pediatricians to screen children and offer free language and autism evaluations to children who do not pass the screening. FSU was only one of two sites in the country to receive this grant.


FSU-ECAP & Other Autism Related Services in Bay County Donations Can Be Sent to:
The GAB Foundation for Autism, P.O. Box 9008, Panama City Beach, FL 32417.
For more information about the program contact: Carolyn Butchikas 850-258-3588



Visit the Master's in ABA web site at:

For information on the Florida Association for Behavior Analysis go to: and

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  • by Zsuzsanna Location: PCB on May 13, 2009 at 09:46 PM
    Thank you for putting this program on TV. It's a very important subject and the community needs to know about it and hopefully they will start to donate to this program as well. Thank you again for News Channel 7!
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