Molly Adawi stared out her living room window on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon.
She turned as stifled giggles erupted from a sofa nearby, where her 10-year-old son, Basel Adawi, watched a movie on his DVD player. Watching the show was Basel's reward - he’d been a good listener that morning and had helped his mom clean the house.
Molly Adawi and her husband, Abdel Adawi, noticed something wasn’t quite right shortly after Basel was born. At age 3, he was diagnosed with autism.
His parents took him to a specialist, different doctors, speech therapists and occupational therapists.
For a while Basel went to public school, but his inability to communicate and socialize made learning difficult.
“The only thing he could really talk was ‘I want this, I want this, can I go to' – he couldn’t really speak in sentences, just words,” Molly Adawi said.
The family considered moving. They worried about the economy and whether Abdel Adawi could find another job.
“I had heard good things,” she said. “That they did intensive ABA therapy there.”
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an intense, one-on-one therapeutic approach that identifies behaviors, tries to find their root causes, then designs ways to change those behaviors using positive reinforcement, explained Scott Dueker, clinical director at BACA Hart.
On Friday, April 4, behavior technician Marc Merriman and Basel sat across a table from one another in a powder blue room at the center.
Basel’s feet swung under his chair as Merriman read the first page of a children’s book, “Going to the Firehouse.”
“Today my class is going to the firehouse!” Merriman read. “I dress like a fireman! Time to…”
Merriman stopped talking, waiting for Basel to finish the sentence. Basel’s chin rested in one hand; the other fidgeted on the tabletop.
“Time to … Basel? You have to pay attention, buddy, what does it say?” Merriman said.
Basel’s eyes jumped up to Merriman and back to the open book. They started over.
“Today my class is going to the firehouse!” Merriman said. “I dress like a fireman! Time to…”
This time Basel chimed in after a pause. They continued reading. Basel’s responses started to come more quickly.
Afterward he was given a question sheet about the book: What was the dog’s name? What did Fireman Joe forget?
Basel struggled to remember the details, but Merriman flipped through the book to help him find the answers.
“The way (autistic children) learn is different,” Dueker said. “Each kid that you’ll run into that is diagnosed with autism is going to be different.”
But after two years and 40 hours a week working with BACA, the Adawis can see changes. Basel talks more and has less difficulty stringing words together, though he still struggles with sentences.
Basel’s lessons from BACA continue at home. Signs are taped to walls around the house.
Hang up your jacket.
No jumping on the couch.
Wash your hands.
“They give me a list of things he does each day,” Molly Adawi said. The Adawis ask him questions about what he learned. Molly Adawi plays educational games with him after dinner. Her daughter, 13-year-old Nora Adawi, reads with Basel before he goes to bed.
“She’s a good daughter,” Molly Adawi said. “She tells me to rest, that she will help him.”
Though Basel is improving, there are still tough moments for the family.
Molly Adawi recalled an incident at a grocery store. Basel walked up to a tall woman, grabbed her hand and called her a “big lady.”
“She was upset,” Molly said. “We tried to explain, but she didn’t understand."
His parents are trying to teach him privacy and how to be nice to people, she said.
“It’s hard for him to understand why he needs to use different words,” she said.
Dueker isn’t comfortable with the term "fixing" kids with autism. Rather, it’s about giving those kids the skills they need to adapt.
“They’ll always have a diagnosis of autism,” Deuker said. “Once they learn how to learn, it gets easier down the road.”
At the family’s home on that sunny Saturday, Basel jumped up from the chair and ran into the kitchen.
“Hey mama! Hotdogs!”
Molly Adawi shook her head. “He had breakfast but doesn’t feel full I think,” she said.
She turned back toward the window, watching two neighborhood boys shooting baskets next door.
They were about Basel’s age.
“I want him to socialize with them,” she said. “To play with other children. I want that for him.”