Jackson "Jack" Hines, 5, and Elizabeth Keathley read a story during a therapy session at his home in Easley.

Jackson “Jack” Hines, 5, and Elizabeth Keathley read a story during a therapy session at his home in Easley.

While two women in Sumter are touched by their recent win, they are hoping it will lead to help for others.

Ann Eldridge, executive director of clinical services for Early Autism Project Inc., and Susan A. Butler, executive director of administrative services, received the 2013 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Southeast Region in the services category.

“We were thrilled and excited by the recognition,” Butler said. “It gives us the opportunity to help more children with autism.”

Autism is a neurobiological disorder that is usually evident from behavioral excesses and deficits that interfere with individuals’ lives, Eldridge said. A deficit might be a lack of communication or social skills whereas an excess might be self-injury or ritualistic behavior. The goal is to improve deficits and reduce excesses, she said.

The company has 450 therapists providing comprehensive services to about 600 children and their families in their homes, in project clinics and in schools throughout 13 states. They focus on Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, which teaches children using very specific examples and specific skills methodically and building to broader concepts.

A panel of judges selected the two from 90 applicants from five states, according to the June 10 news release. They will go on to compete at the national level, and winners in several national categories, including the National Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Overall Award winner, will be announced in November.

“It’s quite an honor to be chosen from a group of 90, all of which are very wonderful businesses in the service category,” Eldridge said. “What I really love is we will be able to spread information to parents, schools and other providers who work with children and young adults with autism.”

THE BUSINESS GROWS

For Butler, the cause is personal. Her then 2-year-old son, Collin, was diagnosed with autism in 1995 after visits to several doctors.

“At that point, they delivered the diagnosis but really no treatment options,” she said. “I was told speech therapy might help a little, but the outlook was a life-long sentence. It really was discouraging.”

At the time, figures were showing 1 out of 1,250 children were being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, Eldridge said, and today the statistic is 1 in 88. Angie Keith, director of clinical services, said that is conservative as parent-reported numbers are closer to 1 in 50.

Butler did research and learned about Applied Behavior Analysis therapy; and with perseverance, she convinced Dr. Glen Sallows, founder of the Wisconsin Early Autism Project, to conduct a workshop in Sumter. Eldridge, who was already serving as a preschool teacher for Collin, attended.

About 1999 and 2000, Butler and Eldridge opened a Wisconsin Early Autism Project clinic in Sumter, and by 2002, they had branched off to an independent clinic. By 2007, the Early Autism Project was serving large public school systems and private-pay patients, the release states. In December 2012, EAP partnered with Educational Services of America, the nation’s leading provider of K-12 special and alternative education schools and programs for students who are at risk for dropping out and for students with special needs, the release states.

TREATMENTS AND RESULTS

While Collin was in preschool, a teacher told Butler “it would take a miracle” for him to be ready for a regular kindergarten classroom.

“That stuck with me,” the mom said.

Instead, Collin started kindergarten in a regular classroom with a paraprofessional to help him. In first grade, he had less assistance, and by second grade, he had no assistance.

Collin is now a scholarship student at the University of South Carolina Columbia making straight As and studying linguistics. He speaks more than 15 languages.

“I’m so proud of him and so thankful for all the work Collin’s team put in,” Butler said.

Collin would be what the project staff calls an advanced learner. Other categories based on the individual’s potential and ability for change include intermediate and advanced, Eldridge said.

An intermediate example would be Winston of Columbia. The staff began working with the now 12-year-old right before he turned 2. He was not communicating at all.

They built from sign language to vocal language, and although Winston still has an assistant during class, the rising sixth-grader is in regular education and considering joining the cross country team. He also continues therapy at home after school.

One that might be labeled an early learner would be a little girl Eldridge works with who over the years has developed a way to communicate with her teachers and family but so far has not become vocal.

“The good news is the same treatment that helped Collin, Winston and lots of other children helped this child become fully independent within her home,” Eldridge said. “With some communication, she can access her community. With ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis therapy), there is such a significant improvement that they can be much more involved and integrated at home and in school.”

The company will open a new facility in Columbia in the next month. And by the end of summer, it will open a new clinic in Charleston.

For more information, visit earlyautismproject.com or call (803) 905-4427.