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Progress is the magical word in behaviorists’ quest to make the lives of children with autism more normal.

Autism being, in the words of behavioral analyst Carolyn O’Connell: “a neurological disorder that affects social communications, language (both receptive and expressive) and independent functioning.”

Recently, O’Connell brought four youngsters with autism to the Greater Marco Family YMCA for an afternoon of games, swimming and mingling with Y summer campers – indeed with progress in mind.

And, it was such a success that the Y and O’Connell Behavioral Services (Naples) hope to turn it into a regular outreach program.

Elementary school teacher and Marco Y tutor Rolf Metral came up with the idea.

“I thought it would be great to integrate both sets of children,” Metral said. “Being in different classes, they don’t get a whole lot of interaction.”

His young son Easton is familiar with autistic children, but he doesn’t really differentiate.

“They’re just normal kids like us,” he said. “Except that they have superpowers.”

And there could be much truth in that observation.

“They really like technology,” says O’Connell. “Some of them are better than me at it. The world is starting to shift, so there are going to be jobs for them and independent living situations. We’re doing the molding.”

O’Connell says in terms of progress, the biggest indicator is early intervention.

All four youngsters who came along to the Y have improved dramatically, she says.

Twins Logan and Gavin Nordin, 7, have increased their vocabularies to about 200 words, while Jayse Guimond, 7, will next year enter a regular first grade class.

A toddler foster child, who by law may not be named, originally spent all his time ripping up strips of paper, O’Connell says, but today is already talking and showing impressive general improvement.

At the Y, behavioral technicians Andres Alvaraz and Taylor Crawford, along with Metral and O’Connell each closely monitored one autistic child, making sure they didn’t wander off or endanger themselves in any way.

“They don’t really have any fear,” said Alvarez, whose younger brother has autism. The older Alvarez will likely enter the profession, as will Crawford.

O’Connell, who recently opened an expanded facility in Naples, studied at UCF, attained her masters in San Diego and thereafter her board certification at the Florida Institute of Technology.

At the moment, she oversees treatment plans for 16 children, who are tutored on a one-on-one basis. They receive 40 hours a week of intensive behavioral therapy.

Parents, of course, are crucial to the equation.

“They do a lot of work at home, and we’re their wraparound service,” O’Connell says. “Parents are like sponges. They want the best for their kids. They don’t just drop them off; they participate.”

It appears, incidentally, that O’Connell’s son Liam, 4, will likely himself enter the profession when the time comes.

“I used to wear him while doing therapy when he was a baby,” she says. “Signing (language) is an important part, and he had 20 signs before he was a year old.”

Liam’s empathy for kids with autism has a lighter touch too.

“One of them taught me how to play video games,” he says enthusiastically.

As for the pressure of her job, all the emotion attached to it, and the knowledge that autism is a lifelong condition, O’Connell is steadfast and positive.

“There’s hardly a day I go home without a smile,” she says. “They’re my babies. I treat them like my own kids. I see beauty in each one.”

For more information about O’Connell Behavioral Services, call 784-4989 or e-mail O’Connell at Carolyn.upham@gmail.com.

For more information on the Marco Y and its wide variety of activities and programs for youth and adults, visit marcoymca.org.

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