The playground is a symbol of childhood, a dream of brightly colored slides and ladders, merry-go-rounds and swings. But for some children, like Aidan Gaiser, playgrounds don’t hold the promise of fun. When Aidan was a toddler, he would hover at the edge of the playground, not sure how to play.
His hesitation was a sign of a bigger issue. For his age, Aidan seemed like most children. He knew about seven words, he responded when someone said his name, and he was developing very typically. But then he started to regress, and at 22 months old, he was diagnosed with autism.
"I felt like my heart was being ripped out," says his mother, Diana, remembering the moment she heard the diagnosis. "It was so silent it was loud."
She and her husband, Andy, turned to Kennedy Krieger for help. They enrolled Aidan in the Institute’s Early Achievements Intervention program, a research and training classroom developed to determine the most effective treatment approaches for improving speech, language, play, and social skills.
After his time in Early Achievements, Aidan amazed his family by speaking in short sentences, responding to his name, and maintaining eye contact - whether he was in the classroom or on the playground. Diana attributes much of his success to the intense early intervention he received.
"The Early Achievements program has been such a huge piece of the puzzle," Diana explains. "Without that, Aidan would not be where he is." Despite the strides Aidan had made, Diana and Andy were still worried about his little brother, Colin. The numbers were not in their favor: Kennedy Krieger’s research shows that while one in every 150 children will have autism, that number jumps to one in 10 for siblings of a child with autism.
Additionally, it has long been held that an autism diagnosis could not be made until the age of two, but researchers at Kennedy Krieger have been changing that notion by identifying children as young as 14 months. They’ve made these strides through an innovative study that follows the baby siblings of children with autism. They noted that children 14 months old who are typically developing will smile, laugh, and play with a researcher. Children with autism rarely interact with the researcher and will show less interest in play, focusing on a toy for a brief moment but then losing interest.
Well aware of the difference that early intervention could make, the Gaisers enrolled Colin in the sibling study at Kennedy Krieger.
For some time, Colin appeared to be developing on target, but at his 14-month visit the therapists noticed some red flags. They immediately placed him in a new intervention study for one-year-olds showing signs of autism. The therapies used in the study made a world of difference: although Colin doesn’t have very many words, he can say "mama" and "dada," and he sings and babbles. Most importantly, Diana and Andy have not had to watch their son retreat into silence.
Now Colin is following in his brother’s footsteps as he begins the Early Achievements program at the Institute. Diana is confident that it will help Colin as much as it helped Aidan. She has a bright vision of her son’s future.
"We went through a grieving process with each of our children’s diagnoses," says Diana. "But then, with Kennedy Krieger’s help, we found strength and courage and actually embraced autism. We realized that with hope and determination you can move mountains and provide your child with every opportunity life has to offer."