Julia Matthews always knew she was meant to make a difference in this world, but she never knew how much of an impact she could make until she started working with autistic kids. Now her work with the nonprofit Carolina Autism takes her all over Charleston, into the homes of families with autistic children, and even onto movie sets.
While getting a BA in Psychology and American Sign Language, she spent an internship with a four-year-old autistic boy and quickly fell in love with the field. She joined the Search Day Program in New Jersey, a school with autistic students aged three to 21. As the wide age range suggests, Matthews saw and treated all forms of the condition in her role of therapist.
There were mild instances of autism where the developmental disability made it hard for children to communicate or deal with the outside world; there were also severe cases with aggressive or nonverbal autistic children. She particularly remembers the youngsters who went from no speech to a five-word vocabulary in two months. For the first time ever, they were able to communicate their feelings.
These experiences stood Matthews in good stead when she moved to Charleston to be with friends and join the staff of Carolina Autism. The organization was established eight years ago by Alan Rose and Phil Blevins to improve the lives of autistic children. They have six group homes and send therapists into private residences to work one-on-one with kids. That's Matthew's job.
During a three hour stretch she uses different forms of therapy to develop a child's social and communicative skills. This might involve taking him to the nearest playground to interact with other kids, or developing his handwriting and math skills. "It's tough because the time I spend with each of the children is right after school," says Matthews. "They're tired and they have to do more work, so it's hard to keep their focus."
Fortunately, Matthews is fun-loving, energetic, patient, and dedicated — so much so that she often sticks around after her three hours to help make dinner or clean up with a child's family, all important social learning experiences and a way to ease pressure off the parents.
Matthews helps kids to understand people's feelings, how they're supposed to react to their environment, the principles of cause and effect, even interaction with their siblings. The therapy is essential. Matthews cites Braeden Reed, her main charge at present, as an example of someone who has responded to applied behavioral care.
"He's been having therapy since he was two or three," she explains. "When it began, he was nonverbal. Now he's talking up a storm with a very wide vocabulary. He's very high functioning, and he's made so much progress."
Enough to make the six-year-old suitable for a lead role in Dear John, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation that's currently filming in Charleston. Braeden will play Alan, an autistic character. Matthews and her boss, Carolina Autism co-founder Phil Blevins, have been on hand to advise the filmmakers and ensure that Braeden copes with the inherent upheaval of movie production.
"It's actually worked out well," chuckles Matthews, "because a huge part of our therapy involves dealing with changes in daily routine. There's nothing structured about being on set, so he's seen that it's okay to change his schedule."
Once Braeden had been cast, a meet and greet was set up with his co-stars so that he "wouldn't be confused about why a person was pretending to be his dad." Although Matthews was initially unsure whether the cast and crew knew anything about autism or how to behave around Braeden, she notes that "they've been compliant with everything we've needed and they've considered Braeden's needs."
Since there's a lot of waiting around in between takes, Matthews has been hired as an on-set teacher. She ensures that Braeden keeps up with his therapy and schoolwork, although the most valuable therapy comes when he interacts with his two doubles. They play together during the day.
"It's great that people can see that even a child with autism can make it and be an actor and deal with everything," Matthews glows. "It's wonderful for the autism community that he's doing it instead of a typical kid."
Beyond Braeden's key role, the film is sure to bring Carolina Autism some much-needed attention during these cash-strapped times. According to Matthews, in June the organization will lose its Medicaid program and many families will lose their therapy. "We'll have to do it for free for poorer, underprivileged families," she says. "Many of them can't afford therapy already. Therapists are available, but the money's not there to pay for them. If there was it would make our lives a lot easier. We get some donations but we need major funding."
4 Carriage Lane, Suite 302 • Charleston, S.C. 29407 • (843) 573-1905 • www.carolinaautism.org
What $25 would do
Pay for a day's therapy for one of the children
• Computers, printers, and fax machines
• TVs and VCRs, videos, CDs, and cassette tapes, games, art and craft supplies, books, and tools
• Lawn mowers
• Sheets and blankets, towels, and washcloths
• Kitchen utensils and equipment