Saul Duenas’ favorite subject at James Bickley Elementary is mathematics and he enjoys Mexican guitar music. When he grows up, he wants to be a restaurant manager like his father. But last week, he wanted to be a singer or a dentist.
In essence, people around him say, Saul is just like any other 10-year-old boy, except for his autism.
“When you tell somebody your child is autistic, they say, ‘I’m sorry,’” said Dulce Duenas, Saul’s mother. “They think there’s nothing you can do with him, and it’s not true. You work with them, and they can do a lot of things.”
Autism is a brain disorder that affects speech and social skills, and is diagnosed to 1 in every 110 children. The non-profit ENMRSH has seven staff members handing autism cases, and handles four families in Clovis and three in Portales, according Mary Vandewege, a quality assurance manager and autism program coordinator for ENMRSH.
Although April is Autism Awareness Month, the condition is the same any other day for the Duenas family, which dedicates time every weekday afternoon to Saul’s condition.
On Mondays, it’s occupational therapy. On Tuesday, gym class. Wednesday is speech therapy, and Thursday and Friday are in-home visits from ENMRSH staff, who create a learning program that’s part fun and part learning.
Steffany Garcia, the interventionist who works with the family, said Saul’s areas of focus are on social skills and not so much on motor skills.
“The challenge is you have to incorporate an individual plan,” Garcia said. “You have to observe them (in other environments).”
Saul’s Thursday with Garcia started with the Cranium board game. Saul’s favorite is the Monopoly Deal card game, but the games reinforce the need to follow instructions.
“Sometimes,” Vandewege said, “he likes to create his own rules, so we try to teach him when that’s appropriate and not appropriate.”
Vandewege accompanies the visits every other week for monitoring purposes. Every family gets 6-10 hours per week of individual attention, but Vandewege said there are limits to scheduling because everybody asks for afterschool time slots.
The program runs for two years, and the goal is to educate the child and the family so they can continue and modify the program after the interventionists are assigned to other families.
“Just in the time since we started the program, we’ve seen kids jump tremendously. Saul (for instance) didn’t make good eye contact when we first started.”
The program began in September, and is part of a partnership with the University of New Mexico Center of Developmental Disabilities and TriWest for children of military families.