ECAP donors aid children, families affected by autism

Erica Howard

When Zsuzsanna Darvai’s son, Balazs, was diagnosed with seizures, developmental delays and autism-like symptoms, Darvai immersed herself in research. Without a centralized source for information in Bay County, she set out on her own to learn more about her son’s condition and how to help him.

When Balazs started elementary school, Darvai tried to network with other parents, but soon hit roadblocks. “It’s not so easy to find the right parent who is going through the same thing,” she said. “Autism is so different with every child.”

Darvai’s story is a common one.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2000. Now, that number is 1 in 68.

Based on Bay County’s most recent estimate of children under the age of 18, about 550 local children could be diagnosed with an ASD, making this a very real issue that local families may face.

“While these numbers appear alarming, there is hope for families,” said Amy Polick, Ph.D, BCBA-D, director of the FSU Early Childhood Autism Program (ECAP), which is housed at FSU Panama City.

ECAP is a non-profit 501(c) 3 early intervention and community outreach program that provides Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services to local children with developmental delays or disabilities. It is the only local nonprofit ABA program to provide in-home, in-school and in-clinic services.

Thanks to a recent $30,000 grant from the Bay Health Foundation, ECAP soon will expand its services to include a parent resource center at FSU Panama City, which will offer information and support on topics ranging from autism warning signs, medical resources and special-needs programs at local schools. The center will open later this year.

“After years of talking to parents, ECAP has discovered that this is a much-needed resource in Bay County,” Polick said. “All parents investigate the same questions on their own, and having this center should save parents endless amounts of time and stress, as well as provide them an avenue to connect with each other via a support group.”

Darvai said the center will be vital for parents with newly-diagnosed children, offering possible solutions to the daily stresses and issues that accompany a child’s disability.

“It will be such a help for struggling moms and dads to find a support system,” she said.

Founded in 2012, the Bay Health Foundation’s mission is to promote the health and well-being of Bay County residents. This year, the foundation’s Grant Committee awarded a total of $500,000 to nine non-profit health care entities that treat Bay County residents.

Scott Barloga, chairman of the Bay Health Foundation Grant Committee, said the members of the committee unanimously agreed ECAP was a worthy cause because of the clinic’s continued effect on Bay County. The foundation’s Board of Trustees agreed.

“We were very impressed by the program and the individuals involved,” Barloga said. “They are doing amazing work with very limited resources, and the passion they have toward helping the children is wonderful.”

Since its inception in 2001, ECAP has been at the forefront of efforts to grow and improve autism services in the Bay County area. ECAP currently serves 30 children (aged 2-20), but this program has helped about 100 local children over the past 14 years to learn countless language, cognitive, self-help, academic, social and communication skills.

“The clinic has helped tremendously. I cannot even express how much it has done,” said Darvai, whose son, Balazs, 8, has been working with ECAP for the past five years.

Because each child’s plan is tailored to his/her diagnosis and progress, therapists can make adjustments as skills and behaviors change.

Balazs worked for three years to master a nine-piece puzzle. Now, with the help of ABA therapy, he can complete a 49-piece puzzle with a longer attention span, his mother said. ECAP also has helped Balazs with skills such as talking, counting, dressing, potty training and motor skills.

“There are constant milestones,” Darvai said.

With the help of a scholarship funded by the George A. Butchikas Foundation for Autism, Darvai can afford more therapy and reach new milestones.

“Without their help, it would have been so difficult,” she said. “It would have delayed everything for Balazs. Early intervention is vital.”

Since 2001, the George A. Butchikas Foundation for Autism has provided annual donations totaling about $450,000 to the ECAP Butchikas Scholarship Program. About one-third of ECAP’s clients utilize the scholarship, which typically funds a full year of ABA services for Bay County families who do not have insurance or the means to pay for their child’s therapy.

“ECAP is the only nonprofit autism ABA treatment program in our local community that has a scholarship so that families — whether insured or not — can access these services,” Polick said. “We aim to treat children effectively with ABA, which has been deemed medically necessary for children with autism, and it is important to us that families get these services without taking out second mortgages or loans to pay for the help they need.”

“We know through our own personal experiences that the techniques of behavioral therapy work,” said Carolyn Butchikas, director of the Butchikas Foundation.

George Butchikas started the foundation in 1997 after his daughter, Camille, was diagnosed with autism and he learned how expensive and inaccessible ABA therapy was to Bay County residents.

“The primary reason we started the foundation was to assist local families dealing with the challenges of autism,” George Butchikas said. “This partnership helps us do that.”

In 2012, the Butchikas Foundation provided a separate $15,000 donation for ECAP to establish an on-campus clinic, the Camille Butchikas ECAP Clinic at FSU Panama City. The new clinic has provided better options for therapy with state-of-the-art technology and a quiet, controlled environment for learning. The program previously provided services on-site in families’ homes and at schools in children’s classrooms.

“These services really make a difference in the quality of life of these children,” George Butchikas said. “We are very glad that the ABA program is here at FSU Panama City because there is a growing need for these services in every community.”

Polick said she is honored and grateful for the generosity and support from their community partnerships with the George A. Butchikas Foundation for Autism and the Bay Health Foundation. As a self-sustaining, nonprofit organization, the ECAP program and clinic would not be able to make such a difference with families with autism without them, she said.

“Every day at ECAP we have children learning new skills and making great strides in their fights against autism, and without these organizations we would be unable to have these success stories,” Polick said. “Their support has changed many lives, not just the children and families ECAP serves, but our own at ECAP as well.”

As more area children are diagnosed with autism, ECAP faces a continual need for growth and expansion. The program has stretched resources and modified clinic space to serve as many children as possible, but there are still numerous families seeking ABA services that cannot be accommodated without additional support from the community.

“ECAP is a victim of its own success,” Barloga noted.

Since opening its doors, the ECAP clinic has been extremely sought after, and the clinic plans to renovate to better serve the growing need for ABA services in Bay County. An expansion plan includes soundproof individual therapy rooms, an indoor playground and a meeting space for the therapists and families. Additional funding is needed to complete the $100,000 project.

“We are incredibly excited to open our parent resource center later this year, but we still have needs,” Polick said. “With additional community support, we can dramatically improve our services and outreach for families affected by autism in Bay County.”

“It’s not all about our lives; it’s about community,” Darvai said. “Autism is such an issue, and, unfortunately, there are more and more children diagnosed every year.”

For more information about ECAP, visit ecap.pc.fsu.edu. To assist ECAP in expansion efforts, call the ECAP office at 850-770-2241 or email Polick at apolick@pc.fsu.edu.