KELLER - It took awhile for 5-year-old Tristan to do something as simple as say "hello," but with the help of music therapy, he learned to say "hello" and "goodbye."
In fact, the repetition of songs helps children with autism learn to talk. That's something Tristan couldn't do at age three.
"He could produce sounds that you were making," said Kristy Hill, Tristan's mother. "He could copy you and say 'mom,' but he didn't know what that meant. He couldn't tell me that he was thirsty or hungry."
Like most moms, Hill thought her son had a speech problem. But, early intervention at Keller Early Learning Center led to the diagnosis of autism.
The speech therapist determined Tristan was nonverbal and they went to work. Three years old is the earliest they'll take kids who have autism, and specialist Stacey Callaway says early intervention is key.
"I would say as soon as you see the symptoms of autism is the best time to jump in," she said. "I know that at 18 months is when doctors are starting to see the autism."
Callaway is the autism program specialist at the center.
"What we know is as soon as we can get in and intervene with any disruptions that they have in learning then that's going to give them the opportunity to capitalize on skills they already have," she said.
Tristan came to the center knowing how to count. He had a fascination with numbers. The Keller Early Learning Center taught him how to use those numbers appropriately.
"He would stack cars over and over again or he would arrange trains in a line just so he could count them.," Hill said. "But, now he is doing math when the teacher assigns it and play time is play time. We saw Tristan blending in with classmates who had no special need, running laps around the gym in PE class, enjoying every second. As a mom, it is a relief how the learning center helped Tristan bloom."
"It's a life changer because even a year ago we weren't sure," she continued. "We didn't know where he would be. We wondered would we be taking care of him his entire life, and I don't really see that as something we need to worry about any more."
One tool that helped is the use of iPads in the program.
"My iPad is blue," Tristan said proudly while displaying his tech gadget.
iPads help children with autism communicate. There are applications with pictures that prompt language development.
His teacher said when Tristan learned to talk, the tantrums stopped.
"He went through some spitting; he went through some screaming," said Beth Whidmann, a teacher. "So, we just set those boundaries of like, 'If you're going to do that, you're not going to get anything rewarding.'"
Giving rewards encourage good behavior. In the case of Tristan, he loves blowing bubbles and looks forward to music therapy that helps children with autism learn to socialize.
For Tristan to sit in a circle with his three other classmates with autism is a true sign of growth.
"This is really a big deal," Whidmann said. "A couple of years ago, they were all pretty isolated in a corner doing their own thing."
Now, Tristan and his buddies sing and play instruments together. It's a huge accomplishment as well considering the sensory overload some children with autism face. But, Tristan is embracing music once considered painful to their ears. It's a sight his parents are grateful to see.
"It makes me feel great," Hill said. "A little teary, but great. It wasn't something we really thought we would see."
Progress is possible with early intervention for children as special as Tristan.