As a family practitioner, Destin resident Ana Leurinda has had her fair share of treating almost every ailment in the book. But when her daughter, Nicole, started to show signs of developmental delays, Ana wasn't prepared for the diagnosis.
"Autism landed in my lap," she said.
As a baby, Nicole progressed normally saying a few words, but when she suddenly stopped talking, Ana had their daughter evaluated.
"We thought maybe she was confused since we speak Spanish and English in the house," Ana said.
When Nicole was diagnosed with autism, Ana sought out applied behavior analysis, otherwise known as ABA therapy. As it was more than 10 years ago, finding the proper care was difficult.
"We found a doctor in Pennsylvania and had him come to Destin and work with Nicole for as many as 40 hours a week," she recalled.
Today, Nicole is 15, and a freshman at Fort Walton Beach High School. She sings and plays the piano — she's “a miracle,” her mother said.
Because of the positive changes she saw in daughter, and since there were a lack of services available in the area, Ana founded Brilliant Minds in 2002, a non-profit organization that offers multidisciplinary treatments for children diagnosed with autism, ADHD, Down’s syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
"The ultimate goal is for the children that come to Brilliant Minds to become independent, functional members of society," said Christie Cacioppo, clinical director and board certified behavioral analyst.
Based on an initial assessment, therapists at Brilliant Minds build one-on-one programs for clients based on their individual deficits.
"We work to increase the good behavior and decrease the inappropriate," Cacioppo said.
Inside one of the rooms at Brilliant Minds, Cacioppo chases after one of her students. The job can be very physical, she said.
"Every kid learns differently," she said. "We may go outside or work on direct teaching to help children fit in with regular classrooms. Sometimes we facilitate interactions with a group setting, but each child always has a therapist right beside them."
Parents are kept in the loop with reviews after every therapy session. They can even watch sessions from the lobby on one of the several televisions lined up along the wall.
"ABA therapy is a group effort," Cacioppo said. "Everybody in a child's environment should participate to see more results."
As the founder of Brilliant Minds, what's important to Ana is that parents of developmentally disabled children are aware of the help that's out there. Because fees can be a barrier between a child and therapy (currently, Tricare is the only accepted insurance), Brilliant Minds has set up a sponsor program where individuals or businesses can donate funds to help pay for therapy fees.
"I would like to see a lot more awareness and to help parents to be better trained to recognize symptoms of developmental delays and work with teachers to help mainstream students," Ana said.
While ABA therapy is effective, Ana notes that it is not a quick process — but it's worth every second.
"It takes a village to raise children," she said. "There are two ways of healing: it can be quick or take time. I can give someone an antibiotic and it could heal them in a day. But autism and other developmental delays take time. These kids learn a different way, and so I wanted to create this place for parents who love their children as much as I love Nicole. I want her to shine."
FOR MORE INFO: Brilliant Minds is located at 151 Regions Way, Ste. 5A in Destin. Find them online at brilliantminds.org.
STAY TUNED: On Sept. 5 and 6, 2014, Brilliant Minds will host a conference at the Emerald Coast Convention Center for parents and teaches featuring guest speakers, information on recognizing developmental delays and how to educate children with delays.