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Standing up to autism

Kerrin Piche Serna / University Communications
Early intervention and a tailored plan has made a positive difference for 4-year-old Cole Stewart, who had limited verbal abilities only two years ago. "Cole's a little chatterbox today," says his mother, Brandy.

For OC Kids is the county's leading medical resource for young children with the disorder and their families

Something was different about Brandy Stewart’s 2-year-old son, Cole. He wasn’t speaking as well as he should have been and seemed disconnected from the world around him. Exams soon confirmed what Stewart and her husband feared: Cole had autism, which affects one out of every 100 children born in America today.

After the diagnosis, Cole’s pediatrician strongly recommended that the Stewarts visit the For OC Kids Neurodevelopmental Center for further assistance. During an initial consultation at the Orange clinic, their terror transformed into something else – hope.

“It’s a complete shock when you learn your child has autism,” says Stewart, an Irvine mother of two. “But the doctors at For OC Kids took time to explain what we would be going through. We walked out of there with a game plan we could execute. For the first time since Cole was diagnosed, I felt optimistic.”

Providing hope and direction for young autistic children — and their families — is at the heart of For OC Kids. The center is a collaboration of the UC Irvine Department of Pediatrics and CHOC Children’s Hospital and receives support from the Children & Families Commission of Orange County. It’s dedicated to the earliest possible identification and treatment of children with developmental, behavioral or learning disorders, including autism and ADHD. 

According to For OC Kids director Dr. Joseph Donnelly, the center sees approximately 800 new patients each year; nearly 80 percent have autism. Overall, about a quarter of families in Orange County with young autistic children have turned to the agency. 

“For OC Kids is the only center in the county that offers evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, support, education and advocacy for autistic children and their families,” says Donnelly, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UCI. “Traditional medical institutions cannot do all this.”

The For OC Kids team includes neurologists, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists, and family support staff.

“We don’t work in isolation,” Donnelly says. “The center partners with many community organizations and individuals to improve care for children.”

In addition, For OC Kids provides training for medical and nursing students and resident physicians, and it hosts a number of research projects, such as those showing that early autism diagnosis and intervention lead to better outcomes.

Already, early intervention has made a difference with Cole Stewart. Donnelly worked with the family to create a tailored plan addressing issues specific to Cole’s form of autism. Brandy Stewart completed a For OC Kids series of classes teaching parents about autism and how to foster the social and communication skills of their children.

Now 4, Cole is alert and playful. On a scale measuring verbal ability, he has improved from a score of .75 a year and a half ago to a 3.75, which is low-normal for his age group. “Cole’s a little chatterbox today,” Stewart says. “One of his speech pathologists told me she’s amazed.”

“There’s still significant room for progress,” she adds, “but when you see these advances, there’s a rush of joy. It’s uplifting and powerful.”

While For OC Kids has established itself as an important resource for young children with autism and other developmental disorders, Donnelly is garnering community support to expand its mission.

“We do a good job focusing on early diagnosis and treatment and providing high-quality care for autistic children up to age 6,” Donnelly says. “But we hope to become a true regional center of excellence by extending our focus to children of all ages, increasing our team to include more disciplines, and offering additional treatment, therapies and education. We want to guide children and their families to superior outcomes – to help them reach their full potential.”

— Tom Vasich, University Communications