Connor Races for the Win


Connor walked around MOKA’s office carrying a cup of ice chips, looking out various windows on a sunny winter day. “What are they doing out there on the lake?” asks Alie Gagnon, one of his Youth Autism Specialists. “Fishing,” he responds. At another window, Alie asks the color of the building’s roof across the street. “Orange,” he quickly answers. Out another, she points to a structure and says “What’s that green building over there we go to?” “The Farmers Market,” Connor replies. It was an afternoon of wins as Connor switched from putting together a rainbow track to putting it away, grabbing Alie’s hand and riding the elevator, something he used to adamantly refuse, to greeting nearly every person he passed.

Connor only said a few words until he was 4 years old, and now he is highly verbal. He has made impressive progress since starting MOKA’s Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy two years ago. The goal of ABA is to create socially significant behavior change that has a positive impact on the individual’s quality of life. ABA specialists work with families to develop an individualized treatment plan that focuses on communication, academics, self-help, play, social, gross and fine motor skills, and visual perception. Connor visits MOKA’s downtown treatment suite three days a week for two or three hours and works on things such as schoolwork, playing alone and with peers, and transitioning between tasks. “It’s definitely been a great thing for him,” says mom Nichole. “They have helped him expand his vocabulary and helped him focus on asking for things.”

MOKA’s ABA therapy focuses on communication skills, life skills and social skills for ages 18 months to 21 years old. Most participants are 4 to 8 years old. The goal is to improve their communication, behavior, independence and interactions with others, whether it is a parent, teacher, classmate or stranger. That involves reinforcing good behavior with rewards. “Once they understand how to request something and realize ‘I can ask for what I want and I can get it, ’that’s such an incentive to keep talking,’” says Katrina Wouters, ABA program supervisor.

Connor’s parents, Nichole and Derrick, noticed he was late to crawl, walk, and talk. They initially attributed it to him being born five weeks premature. As he continued to miss developmental milestones, they mentioned it at doctors’ visits. His pediatrician recommended physical and occupational therapy, but never seemed too concerned that it was autism. When Connor was 3 years old, Nichole asked a teacher at Mona Shores her opinion and she recommended a full evaluation. It took about nine months for the family to receive a diagnosis of moderate to high-functioning autism, and that led them to MOKA’s Youth Autism Program.

“They really bonded with him so he really enjoys coming here,”Nichole says. “We’re really impressed with how much he has changed in school.”

Connor enjoys reading, completing puzzles, and playing with MOKA’s rainbow track. During weekly visits, he likes visiting with MOKA staff, playing with others, and taking trips to the nearby Farmers Market and splash pad on nice days. Alie and Katrina started working with Connor last fall and said his fine motor skills have improved. He can sit and focus for longer periods and transition between activities without getting upset. He also likes to play and loves to talk. Connor regularly greets Alie and Katrina by name, asks them questions, and tells them about his day. “His language has just exploded,” Katrina says. “It’s so natural. It’s conversational like you and I would talk and that’s the goal.” The ABA specialists customize their approach to address Connor’s unique needs and give Nichole and Derrick suggestions and resources to try at home. They also pick him up from school when his parents can’t. Nichole has noticed a big improvement in his writing, fine motor skills, social skills and overall behavior. “They kept pushing him and making it unique to him,” Nichole says. “He’s really gotten good at his matching, sorting and counting.”

His ABA specialists take him on trips to the park or grocery store and teach him how to interact with others and act appropriately. Nichole says he is better about not running away, along with daily living skills such as zipping his coat, putting on his shoes, and a regular bathroom routine. “MOKA has always been really good about telling us the good things,” Nichole says. “It takes a very special person to do what they do.”Connor turned 6 years old in May and continues to blossom into a talkative, inquisitive, and active child. “He’s so funny,” Nichole says. “We’ve really gotten to see his personality.” Making huge strides toward greater independence and making new friends, Connor’s progress is above the norm and he is expected to succeed in a regular classroom. “Connor is really full of joy. He is such a good kid,” Katrina says. “He wants to communicate and he is very motivated to share his thoughts with you.”