Breaking Down Autism

WHEELING – Wisps of golden brown hair flew skyward Thursday as 6-year-old Chloe Milliken removed the traditional graduate’s mortarboard from her head.

A few grown-ups gently urged her to toss it in the air – but somewhat unsure of herself, she stepped forward and handed it to her mother seated in the front row, who offered a few words of encouragement before giving it back. Finally deciding on a course of action, she climbed the steps back up to the stage and, sporting a kindergartner’s gap-toothed grin, held the bright blue cap with gold tassel high above her head.

On this day, Chloe was in a class all her own.

The cause for celebration was Chloe’s graduation from the Augusta Levy Learning Center, where 15 children – ranging in age from 17 months to 6 years – receive therapy for autism. Two years ago, she was completely non-verbal, as many Augusta Levy students are when they first arrive at the center, located inside a former church at the corner of North Main and First streets in North Wheeling.

“Now she’s talking, she’s working on grade level and has fully transitioned to a regular kindergarten classroom,” said Augusta Levy Executive Director Kathy Shapell.

Augusta Levy uses the applied behavior analysis approach to autism therapy, which takes relatively simple, measurable behaviors and breaks them down into small steps. Through positive reinforcement and intensive, one-on-one instruction – 35 hours a week, year-round – therapists often are able to break down seemingly impenetrable barriers and turn non-communicative children into inquisitive learners.

Chloe’s parents, Don and Michelle Milliken, marvel each day at the progress Chloe has made in the two years since they first brought her to the center. Shortly after her third birthday, and yet to say her first word, she was diagnosed with autism.

“It’s really hard to take it in. You don’t really know where to start,” Michelle Milliken said of receiving that news. “We would have given just about anything to hear her say one word.”

Unsure where to turn, the Millikens found their ray of hope when they learned about Augusta Levy during an open house at the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley. Today, Chloe is not only talking and learning at a normal pace but reading aloud to other children, and has been doing very well since enrolling at Ritchie Elementary School in January.

“I don’t even know where we would be now if it wasn’t for them. They’re an exceptional group of people,” Michelle Milliken said of the Augusta Levy staff.

One of Chloe’s therapists at Augusta Levy, Allison West fought back tears as she recalled meeting her that day at the Children’s Museum, as well as her delight when Chloe began showing up at the center for therapy.

“Chloe is truly a beautiful and intelligent little girl, and I’m proud to have been a member of her team,” West said.

Elise Shaffer, another member of Chloe’s therapy team, added, “Chloe inspired me in so many ways. Her kind and loving personality inspired me to be a better person. … It is Chloe who touched our lives and changed us forever,” she said.

Center staffers wish they could tell more stories like Chloe’s. Although recent years have brought increased awareness to the impact of autism, researchers have yet to pinpoint an exact cause for the disorder, which affects an estimated 1 in 88 children – and only about 2 percent of the more than 3,000 autistic children in West Virginia receive the type of therapy Augusta Levy provides.

That therapy often costs $50,000 or even $100,000 per year. But Augusta Levy’s staff is obsessive about holding down costs wherever possible, so the Wheeling center is able to help a child for about $36,000 annually.

With a budget that relies heavily on private donations and minimally on government support, Augusta Levy can only accept 15 students at any one time. More than 100 children are on the waiting list for admission.

“That’s the worst thing,” Shapell said. “That’s the worst part of my job.”

In an effort to assist with those funding concerns, the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic is donating proceeds from this year’s race, scheduled for May 24-25 in downtown Wheeling, to Augusta Levy.