ELIZABETH, NJ - Christopher Rodriguez sat at his dining room table pointing to images to explain what food he wanted from Schlier Langhorn, while his mother, Rosemaria Rodriguez, watched and his Australian Shepherd sat beside him hoping for a treat.
Each time Christopher, who is on the Autistic spectrum in addition to being epileptic, completed the exercise, Rodriguez beamed in delight. She has seen her son make this simple gesture hundreds of times in the last few months yet remains thrilled each time he does so again.
"I would do anything for my children," said the mother of three.
Last year anything entailed quitting her job to stay home with Christopher after he was abused at a day program and came away with a fractured femur.
"It took me a long time to allow someone to come in but I'm glad I did," Rodriguez said. "They are great. He didn't even have a behavior plan before and now he is communicating."
"They" are Langhorn, a registered behavior technician, and Jennifer Lebowitz, a board certified behavior analyst, from Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which was recommended to Rosemaria by her state support coordinator. Langhorn and Lebowitz began working with Christopher in November.
"When we first began working with Chris he had limited means of communicating even basic wants and needs to his mother and other family members," Lebowitz said. "He would engage in aggressive behavior as a form of communicating when he wanted something and/or when he was in distress."
Christopher has learned to communicate using pictures to express his requests. With some guidance from Langhorn and his mother, he has learned to redirect himself to his room, his safe space, when he becomes agitated. The behaviorists provided the family with a weighted blanket that Christopher uses to self-soothe.
"Chris’s problem behaviors have deescalated to the point where we are now able to discuss taking him out into the community and working on his community integration skills," Lebowitz said.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, which this year is dedicated to not only raising awareness about Autism but also "encouraging friends and collaborators to become partners in the movement toward acceptance and appreciation," according to the Autism Society. Christopher's progress is a result of just that kind of teamwork, according to Langhorn.
"I feel like we're a team," she said. "Rodriguez is receptive to coaching and suggestions and she sticks to the system. When I'm not in the home I know she's practicing with him because when I come back I can see he's made progress."
"My long-term goal is for him to be more independent," Rodriguez said. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to put him back in a day program but we'll see."
"It's a day-by-day process," Langhorn said. "I never want to give up on Christopher. He may not go as far as the average person but he can do a lot on his own."
"I'm very happy," Rodriguez added.
Community Access Unlimited (CAU) is a statewide Union County-based nonprofit providing support programs and services to adults with disabilities as well as at-risk youth to enable them to live independently in the community, providing support in areas including housing, vocational skills, and life-skills training, education, advocacy, and recreation.
Celebrating its 39th year, they support people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society. They help people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities.
For more information about CAU and its services, contact them by phone at 908-354-3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.