RALEIGH — Doctors diagnosed Kai Wu with autism at 18 months old. They told his mother he would never speak.
So as he got older, when Jade Wu told her son she loved him and got no response, she steeled herself for a lifetime of silence.
Then, last year, her son answered for the first time.
“I love, too,” the 5-year-old said. He hadn’t figured out the “u” sound yet, but his mom knew what he meant.
“It blessed my heart,” she said.
Kai is enrolled at the Meredith Autism Program, a full-time daytime program that drew the Wu family to Raleigh from Fayetteville. Housed at Meredith College, the nonprofit uses targeted, one-on-one programs to equip children with autism with the life skills they need to enter kindergarten. Though there’s normally a waiting list, two spots are available.
Last week on the playground, a student instructor worked with Kai on his listening skills, instructing him to run and touch the fence, then sit in the blue chair nearby. His giggly reward was tickles.
That’s part of the applied behavior analysis and discrete trial training techniques that help set the school apart: Many parents who end up at the program came there seeking those specific tools. Instructors break down life skills into simple parts and use nonedible positive reinforcement – from blowing bubbles to being tossed in the air – to cement each lesson.
Staff instructors at Meredith also work with parents and families of children, doing in-home family training when needed. Children start younger than they do at many autism programs and must be enrolled by age 4 1/2.
Catching kids with autism early in their development is crucial to making sure they are ready for kindergarten, said assistant director Hilary Wilkinson.
At $2,550 per month, the program is expensive for day care, but average or better for a targeted, one-on-one program, Wilkinson said. Using Meredith students, who get class credit, allows the program to keep expenses down.
Sophomore psychology and child development major Allison Adams was so eager to start work at the program, she pestered the staff into letting her begin the summer before her freshman year. It’s why she chose Meredith for school.
“It’s always challenging, and it can be frustrating when the kids won’t do something you know they can,” Adams said. “But when you get them to laugh or to do something new, it all cancels out.”
Many of the program’s clients have moved in from the suburbs – and from as far as Massachusetts and overseas – to meet its 25-mile radius resident requirement.
Four years ago, the Wu family almost moved to Los Angeles to give Kai the chance at a program like Meredith’s. When they discovered Meredith, they packed for Raleigh instead and waited six months for an opening.
In his first interview at age 3, Kai sat blankly, uninterested in toys or interaction. His older brother used to complain that he felt like he didn’t have a brother to play with.
The work at Meredith first taught Kai the importance of communication, convincing him to write out his needs, then coaxing him to speak for the first time when he was 4 years old.
Now 6, Kai is an energetic, interactive kid with a sly sense of humor that surprised his teachers and parents. He and his brother play side by side.
“We didn’t know all that humor existed until he was able to express it through his writing,” Wilkinson said. “His personality has really blossomed.”