A fundraiser featuring health and wellness products next Saturday will benefit a 10-year-old Birch Bay boy with autism, as well as other, local families.
Birch Bay resident Denise Skinner said she has planned an Arbonne health and weightloss product fundraiser to pay for a certified teacher from the Autism Treatment Center of America in Massachusetts to visit Birch Bay and give a free community talk.
The event is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, January 29, at Loomis Hall at 288 Martin Street in Blaine.
Skinner, a registered nurse who worked at the former Mother Baby Center, a Bellingham non-profit group, before it closed last year, said she started selling Arbonne natural cosmetics and health products two years ago as a way to spend more time at home, working with her autistic son Nathan as part of a home therapy program.
Five years later, with her son nearly recovered from autism, she said she wants to help other families find the help they need.
“My vision is to give hope to other families,” she said. “It’s not just about helping my own son recover.”
Skinner and her husband Jason have been trained as part of the program to help them relate better to their son and give him incentives to interact with people more.
Because of the intensive one-on-one nature of the program, however, it requires at least one parent to be home on a full-time basis.
Skinner is also vice president of Rishi’s Gift Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps pay treatment costs for children with life-threatening illnesses. That foundation is named after Rishi Nair, a Birch Bay boy who survived kidney failure.
Nathan is one of an estimated 1.5 million Americans who struggle with autism, a diagnosis in which children or adults find normal social interaction and communication difficult in varying degrees.
Before the family began the program five years ago, Skinner said Nathan would sit in his specialized playroom and spin wheels on cars for hours.
But through the program’s unique parent-based home therapy approach she said her son is now more interested in spending time with one of several trained volunteers who visit him each week.
He also enjoys playing with his younger brother, Brayden, and is now enrolled in group classes through Blaine school district’s Home Connections program, whereas he couldn’t function in group settings before.
“Before the program, he had no interest in socialization. He would prefer to be alone and would cry when volunteers showed up to play with him,” she said. “Now he loves people and asks when more volunteers are coming.
“He also makes regular eye contact and his verbal skills are improving. He’s almost a five on the program’s 0-5 scale of progress, in which 5 is fully functioning. And the best part is that he now waits for his younger brother at the bus stop to greet him after school.”
Skinner said as she starts making more money through cosmetic sales, she wants to eventually raise money for other families to attend the institute so their children might get the help they need.
But Skinner is not only convinced autism is treatable, she believes it is completely reversible. This may be why she nearly burst into tears recounting a story told by a school bus driver for autistic children about a middle school girl whose parents had abandoned her to a special care facility because they gave up hope.
“This little girl wanted to have human connection but didn’t know how and her parents didn’t know how to help,” she said. “I want people to know there is hope out there. These children can recover and rise above it.”
A different approach
Brian Nelson, senior family counselor with ATC, said the ATC’s “option” program is different from conventional autism therapy because it emphasizes training adults how to better understand their child’s behavior and encourages them to work with their child through their development with a loving and accepting attitude.
Nelson, whose son is also autistic, said this is often accomplished by having parents join their children in their favorite activities rather than forcing them to adhere to conventional behavioral standards. Doing so encourages them to interact with adults through an incentives-based approach.
One of the more controversial aspects is the program’s belief that autism is a temporary condition, and completely curable. Whereas other programs will characterize children based on whether the behavior is good or bad or appropriate or inappropriate, ATC counselors view the condition as a relationship-based issue, the treatment of which is dependent upon the cooperation of the entire family.
“With the other programs it’s always dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause,” he said. “But if a child fell and injured their leg, we wouldn’t tell them to stop limping, we’d take them to the doctor. So we deal with the symptom as well as the cause.”
Focusing on praise
At the Skinner home, Nathan plays in his special play space – a quiet room painted in muted colors with toys placed out of reach on high shelves. If he wants to play with a toy, Nathan must ask the volunteer to hand it to him.
The room’s window is coated in a special one-way coating that prevents Nathan from gazing at outside distractions. Toys are not battery operated or noisy because the idea is to make the person the most exciting thing in the room.
Meanwhile, the volunteer is instructed to always be within view so they can praise him.
Currently, Skinner said she has two trained volunteers who spend between one and two hours two times per week but is looking for additional people willing to donate some of their time.
“We want to teach these kids the joys and wonder of a human being,” she said. “Autistic kids are more fascinated with objects than people. These games make them feel like socializing and teach that people are fun and that, in turn, helps them want to socialize.”
How to help
Individuals interested in becoming trained volunteers or donating can call 360/441-0908. Skinner also said she and her husband have opened a bank account for Nathan at Whatcom Educational Credit Union.
For more information about the Son Rise program, visit www.autismtreatmentcenter.org or call 413/229-2100.
Photo by Denise Skinner