As Collin Butler walked across the stage at the University of South Carolina’s December graduation, he carried with him the hopes of thousands of parents who dream their children with autism can follow in his footsteps.

Collin didn’t feel that weight on his shoulders. He just walked across the stage like all of the other graduates and shook a few hands. But as he made the trip, nearly 30 people in the audience broke the rules and cheered.

Many more have been buoyed by his legacy.

Nearly 20 years ago, the struggle to find help for Collin led to the creation of the S.C. Early Autism Project. This year, that group founded by Collin’s mother and his former preschool teacher, Ann Eldridge, is working to get the best results for about 900 children with autism. Without early intervention, they all too often end up in school special-education programs. With specialized help, however, they can go much farther – some even to college degrees.

“I just hope I can make a difference for children with autism, for parents of children with autism,” Collin said. “I’m probably one of the few people right now who have achieved such a feat.”

Looking for answers, then help

Collin was a healthy baby and hit all the typical developmental milestones through about 15 months. Then the pool of words he used mysteriously began to shrink rather than grow. He started throwing tantrums, kicking, screaming. His parents, Susan and Joe Butler, knew these weren’t the actions of a spoiled kid. They were too intense and set off by the smallest things.

Susan expressed her concerns with Collin’s pediatrician, but Collin never acted out in the doctor’s office. Susan finally convinced the pediatrician to refer them to a developmental specialist. Again, Collin was on his best behavior during that 20-minute visit and no problems were identified.

Susan kept pushing, knowing something was different about her son’s tantrums. Finally, she lined up an examination by an expert at the University of South Carolina. After spending two hours with Collin, that specialist diagnosed him with autism.

Then came the second major hurdle, finding help for that condition.

“It wasn’t like ‘Your child has autism, and here’s the prescription,'” Susan recalled. “It was ‘Your child has autism,’ and you fall off the cliff.”

Researching the subject, she found out about progress in autism treatment at UCLA directed by Dr. Ivar Lovass. Communication with his office led her to Dr. Glen Sallows, who had started a similar program, the Early Autism Project, in Wisconsin. Susan flooded Sallows with phone calls, leaving 62 messages before she got through on the 63rd for a conversation that has changed a lot of lives.

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