Treatment helps autistic boy thrive

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Davion Henderson’s favorite foods are pepperoni pizza and burgers.

To be perfectly clear, he bounds over to the sofa at his far east-side Detroit home and excitedly rattles off his list: “I like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Checkers.”

Davion Henderson, right, looks at a brochure with his brother, Dennis Arnold, 4, left, as their grandmother, Ayanna Sheffield, watches behind.

Not bad for an 8-year-old who only really began talking two years ago. Before that, he could only silently point at whatever he wanted, or stare off into space.

Davion was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 5.

Davion represents the one in every 59 American children diagnosed with autism. The ratio represents a 15 percent increase in just two years, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report was issued during National Autism Awareness Month.

“The alarming increase in autism prevalence over the past 10 years signals the need for a significant change in the federal response to addressing autism in the United States,” said Lisa Wiederlight, executive director of SafeMinds, an advocacy group, in a statement. “A more accountable, effective and strategic plan is necessary to meet the needs of those with autism and their caregivers today.”

Autism is described by the National Autism Association as a developmental disability that generally appears before the age of 3. It impacts normal brain development in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function. Individuals with autism typically have difficulties with communication, social interactions and play activities. Boys are four times more likely to be autistic than girls, and about 40 percent of children with autism do not speak.

Tantrums are common, and Davion’s were frequent.

North Coast Strategies owner Daniel Cherrin sits with Davion Henderson and his siblings.

“He would point at the refrigerator when he wanted something to eat, and he’d point toward the toys when he wanted to play,” said his mother, Nautica Arnold, 22, a wife and mom of three. “But when I didn’t understand what he wanted, or if he couldn’t get his way, he’d throw a tantrum and bang his head on the corner of the table or on the floor or anywhere, at home, in the grocery store, wherever.”

When he was diagnosed with autism, his mom had never heard of it.

“I was worried and emotional when I heard the word because I didn’t know what that was,” she said. “I was a young mother and didn’t know what to do.”

He first began exhibiting behavioral problems and was not talking or focusing at the age of 21/2.

Before his diagnosis, which took several months, Davion’s mom said her primary care doctor referred her to Children’s Hospital.

Children’s Hospital, she said, then provided her with a list of organizations to call for a second opinion. She selected the Wayne Center on River Place, a Detroit-based nonprofit community mental health agency that specializes in helping people with developmental disabilities. He was diagnosed there, and they suggested his mom take him to Centria Healthcare.

Centria is headquartered in Novi and serves 2,100 children in eight states. It provides autism services including screening, diagnosis, assessment and applied behavior analysis.

Arnold describes the difference in her son as “miraculous” and credits Centria senior therapist Robin Savage, who works with the family. Davion now appears to interact with his family like any other rambunctious kid.

He plays loudly on the living room floor with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man, and with his siblings.

Although he now can shower, get dressed and tie his shoes by himself, challenges remain.

“Davion still has his days when he acts out if he gets angry,” Arnold said. “But it no longer gets to the point where he’s banging his head.”

Richard Loewenstein, chief strategy and growth officer at Centria, describes Davion as “awesome” and “one of the great success stories.”

The family’s goal now is for Davion to attend public school next fall.

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