By Mesha Williams for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Cameron Knight’s eyes gleam as he studies the different shapes his therapist gives him. The 2½-year-old was diagnosed in March with autism, a complex brain disorder, and has been receiving therapy every day. As his therapist, Brittani Polly, says the name of objects, Cameron carefully examines them, turns them over in his hands, and eventually places each object in his plastic box.
For his parents, Kristi and Kenneth Knight, getting him to focus on what’s happening in his environment is a major step. A couple of months ago, he wouldn’t interact with anyone, they said.
The Knights are advocates of Applied Behavior Approach therapy, an experimental intervention they are using to help their son. “It was like he was a loner,” Kenneth Knight said. “The good thing about the therapy is that it makes him interact.”
The Knights think early intervention is the key in helping autistic children function like normal kids once they enter grade school. It’s a belief shared by Dr. Spencer Mathews.
A psychology professor at Converse College, Mathews has been studying people’s social behavior for 40 years. He’s been working with the Knight family for three months in the hope that the research will prove the value of ABA therapy. “It is really very satisfying when a child has trouble learning something and you figure out what you have to do to get them to learn it,” he said.
Mathews leads four teams in clinical trials using ABA intervention methods across the Upstate. Autism is a condition that often prevents a person from communicating, responding to surroundings or forming relationships with others. Most children who have the disorder are diagnosed by the age of 2 or 3.
Historically, 95 percent of children with autism require lifelong supervised living arrangements, Mathews said. However, he believes with early intervention and intensive training that half of the children with the diagnosis can blend in with their peers by the time they reach kindergarten. “These kids ultimately teach psychologists what the human social repertoire is built out of, and if they ultimately develop one then we know how to build from that,” he said.
Mathews was inspired to study the disorder after a 1970s research project known as the Young Autism Project conducted at the University of California Los Angeles was released. In 1997, he decided to take a one-year sabbatical from Converse to study the work of Ivar Lovass, a clinical psychologist, and his approach to treating children with autism. The study determined that children who received help in their homes had almost a 50 percent recovery rate with training, Mathews said. Impressed by Lovass’ methods, Mathews decided to replicate efforts in the Upstate to contribute more research data for the UCLA project.
In six years, he has worked with 15 children, most of them referred to him through services helping parents who want therapy for their children. His team consists of Converse students, graduates and volunteers with an interest in special education or psychology. They work one-on-one with the children.
ABA requires that a child have 30 to 40 hours a week of intensive training in the home, and parents are encouraged to get involved. Sessions are