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Opening of new autism center raises hopes for Tampa mom

Marissa Dixon hopes the new Florida Autism Center in the University Mall can help prepare her 3-year-old son Jonathan Padilla for school. Dixon attended the grand opening of the new center, as did Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Published Aug. 31, 2017

TAMPA

Marissa Dixon is speaking with a visitor, her angelic-looking 3-year-old Jonathan in tow, when the boy lets out a scream, Then another. And another.

When the visitor rises to leave, Jonathan looks up from under his long, dark, curly locks and offers his hand for a high-five.

Dixon, 24, hopes that in the months and years to come, Jonathan will be screaming less and high-fiving more.

She believes Florida Autism Center, where a therapist works with Jonathan alone for 35 hours a week, offers the best chance of getting him there.

Jonathan and his mother were on hand recently, along with dignitaries including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, for the grand opening of the center. Lake Mary-based Florida Autism Center has 17 locations around the state. Five more are planned.

The centers seek to build communication skills of autistic children and help them develop the social skills they'll need to succeed in school.

"We're happy to be a part of this ribbon cutting,'' Buckhorn said. "But more importantly, we're happy to be a part of the discussion and the movement to make sure that anybody who is touched by autism has the same chances and the same benefits and the same opportunities for a great quality of life in this community that everyone else does.''

Some Florida Autism Centers provide schooling as well as therapy. The new Tampa center, which opened in May, specializes in one-on-one therapy based on the principles of applied behavioral analysis — described as a systematic approach for influencing behavior by identifying environmental variables.

The first step is to pay attention, said clinical director Jackie McLeish, because each child is different.

"You gather as much information as you possibly can," McLeish said. "And you figure out what makes that kid tick. What do they like? How do they learn? What's the optimal environment for them to improve themselves? And then we create that environment.''

Theories abound on the cause of autism and why more children are being diagnosed, but McLeish does not indulge in them.

She tells parents that, for them and their child, the cause is no longer important.

"It is what it is. We're moving forward,'' she tells them. "We're going to make it better. We're going to give them the best life that we can give them.''

Her gratification comes when she sees behavior change.

"What I like about it is walking through the hallways and seeing a kid that did not speak at all suddenly talking to his peers, socializing, saying, 'Hey, Jackie,' as I walk the hall, and asking me to give them a hug.''

Florida Autism Centers has agreements with institutions such as Fort Lauderdale-based Nova Southeastern University, the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and the University of Florida.

The cost of therapy at the centers — $50 per hour, according to operations manager Dina Greco-Haya — would be prohibitive for many families if they did not have insurance. Some plans cover more than others. Medicaid is paying for all of little Jonathan's therapy.

Dixon said she started noticing disturbing changes in her son early last year.

"As far as his speech, he started using regular words, such as mom and dad and stuff like that, but then he began to regress and lose those words,'' she said. And the reason his hair is so long is his profound fear of having it cut.

"And the squealing and the lining up toys, having little issues, sensory issues. That's when I thought I should have him evaluated.''

Dixon said she had been hoping to get Jonathan into a Florida Autism Center but they were all too far away. She plans to bring him regularly now that the University Mall site has opened.

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com

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