Children with autism face challenges, but Spanish-speaking children with autism face even more challenges.
Research shows that children from Spanish-speaking homes receive autism diagnoses as much as two years later than children from English-speaking homes. Because treatment of autism before age 3 results in the best outcomes, a later diagnosis can severely hamper a child’s development.
This is why, for the past seven years, the School of Education and Human Development’s Positive Early Learning Experience (PELE) Center has focused much of its early-intervention work on non-native English speakers with autism.
“The intersection of poverty, English as a second language and having a child with autism is generally ignored by the [education] profession,” said Phil Strain, PhD, director of PELE. “We’re proud to be making a difference. We are seeing consistent, often dramatic improvements in children’s behavior and communication. And, thankfully, our families report more normalized home and community activities.”
PELE parent clients say:
“The program is phenomenal! Thank you so very much for having it available for us parents who desperately need the guidance.”
Focus on Spanish-speakers
In the past year, PELE has provided nearly 3,000 hours of in-home coaching for families of children with autism in the Denver area. Many of those hours have been delivered by its two full-time, bilingual interventionists—not translators but native Spanish-speakers themselves.
Edy Purcell is one of them. Originally from Mexico, she earned a master’s degree in special education from CU Denver and has worked for PELE since 2004. In that time, she estimates, she has served 15-20 Spanish-speaking families of children with autism—spending eight hours a week with each family, in some cases for as many as three years.
“Understanding their language and culture helps me to have a deeper connection with families,” she said. “The community has a lot of opportunities to get help, but many of the families don’t know how to access them. I give them the ability and confidence to do that.”
Language and communication are two major focus areas for interventionists, as many young children with autism are nonverbal. With early, effective treatment, Strain said, they can go on to lead happy, independent, meaningful lives.
Unique among treatment programs
“Since I’m Spanish-speaking, I am able to teach them more effectively,” Purcell said. “There are a lot of good resources out there, but there are none in Denver metro area integrating Spanish in the same way we are.”
Indeed, PELE stands out among its peers for its focus on Spanish-speaking families.
“I could probably count on one hand the number of programs that utilize bilingual interventionists,” Strain said. “Other programs use translators, which is better than nothing but far from ideal in terms of developing relationships with families and translating clinical terms accurately.”
PELE is also unique in that its interventionists provide services in the child’s home environment, instead of at a hospital or clinic. This approach allows parents and other family members to undergo training, as well, on how to manage daily routines, interactions and relationships.
“[Parents] see the power they can have in impacting their children’s behavior,” said Ted Bovey, associate director of PELE, “and we think it’s easier for the child, because you can let them select activities and materials they want to be interacting with instead of creating a novel situation.”
A third differentiator for the center is the expansive reach of its research and programming. Staff members consult with school districts all over the country that are trying to replicate PELE’s treatment model.
“There will never be enough trained therapists in the world to meet the needs of all the children with autism,” Strain said, “but if you can give those skills away—to the child’s parents, teachers, friends—then it starts becoming much more likely that kids are going to have really great outcomes.”
Real-life great outcomes
The “great outcomes” that Strain and the PELE staff are working toward involve not just the children but their families and everyone in their lives.
“Many of our families are just getting through the process of having their child diagnosed with autism,” Bovey said. “We develop very close relationships with them, and it’s hugely rewarding, to see not only the child but the parents grow.”
Strain, who has been in this field for nearly 40 years, has many success stories to share.
“A dad once said to me, ‘I want to thank you,’” Strain remembered, “‘for giving me my son back. He tells me he loves me now. I tell him I love him, and I know that he understands.’”
Purcell once worked with a young Spanish-speaking boy with autism for two years. The boy never said a word to Purcell and hardly ever made eye contact—until the last day. As she waved goodbye to the 6-year-old, he looked straight back at her and said, “Bye, Edy.” And she nearly started to cry.