The boy pops into the frame of the video call to proudly show a paper map in the shape of a country.
“Chad!” he declares, identifying the nation in north-central Africa.
Lucas Getz, 12, is obsessed with all things maps.
“He makes his own,” says his father, Cory, sitting on a couch at home. “He’s been moving from countries to states to counties, and is now making maps of zip codes.”
Lucas, who has autism spectrum disorder, gets chatty before he scurries out of view of the camera.
In addition to maps, Lucas loves music, drawing, the beach and dogs. He recently got a puppy, a chocolate lab trained as a service dog.
Two years ago, Lucas’ behavior was dramatically different.
He didn’t speak and his sleep was atrocious, forcing Cory and his wife, Laura, to take turns watching him while one of them got some shut-eye in a backyard tent.
“He was just such a sweet boy and then the anxiety came and greatly disrupted his life disrupted our life at the same time,” says Cory, referring also to his wife, Laura. “At some point, he was unable to calm his mind.”
With help from CHOC, Lucas’ family made changes for the better
Big changes started happening after Lucas, who began having trouble focusing in school and acting disruptive when he was 10, was referred to the Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center at CHOC (TACC) shortly after the facility opened in March 2020.
At TACC, pediatric neurologists work closely with psychologists and other team members to maximize the treatment approach.
Provide each patient, in a centralized and comfortable setting, the chance to receive an early diagnosis and advanced therapy, and thus the opportunity to realize his or her potential.
In Lucas’ case, his goals included improving his sleep by implementing a consistent nighttime routine and decreasing the frequency and severity of his challenging behaviors such as yelling and increasing his functional communication skills.
Cory and Laura Getz knew their son had potential. They just had to get a handle on how to best manage his behavior at home.
“We did try a couple of medicines that did not work for us in the beginning but being with him 24/7 I was able to notice these differences and we quickly switched to different meds,” Cory Getz says. “We finally got the right ones.”
Attending weekly therapy sessions at the TACC with Lucas also helped.
“We didn’t know what it was, but there was an underlying anxiety preventing him from doing just about anything,” Cory says. “He couldn’t learn or sit still.”
Learning tools to help manage disruptive behaviors
With the help of Jina Jang, PhD, a pediatric psychologist, Cory and Laura soon acquired tools to best care for Lucas, one of the blended family’s six children and the youngest by several years.
“That alone was a huge calming thing for everybody,” Cory says.
For example, Luke was yelling when he wanted attention from his parents — which also resulted in disrupted sleep for everyone, as he frequently yelled for his parents at night.
He also was yelling nonstop and engaging in other disruptive behaviors during the day. Identifying why he engages in this behavior was important.
At night, when he was yelling to get attention, his parents practiced planned ignoring. During the day, a break card was introduced for him to use when he needed a break instead of yelling.
“Oh, it looks like you need a break,” his parents would tell him.
“His outbursts now are all tolerable,” Cory says. “He’s no longer throwing things. He just gets a little loud.”
A team approach to autism disorders
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 54 children has been identified as being on the autism spectrum. In Orange County, 20 percent of children in special education classes also have been diagnosed with autism, the highest rate of any county in the state, according to CHOC Neurologist Dr. Tom Megerian, director of the TACC.
The highly-trained clinical team at TACC, the only facility of its kind in the region, includes psychiatrists, psychologists, developmental behavior pediatricians, occupational therapists, child life specialists, social workers, nurses, and others.
TACC’s customized and evidence-based treatment plans include behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy.
Jang says Lucas’s behavior steadily improved following weekly therapy sessions. She now sees him once every six months.
“I’m so happy to see that Lucas is able to sleep well and not seem as anxious as before,” Jang says. “What I love the most about Lucas’ story is that his parents are confident about their ability to understand and manage Lucas’ behaviors. They now have the tools to deal with his behaviors.”
Cory calls the Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center a “godsend.”
He adds: “We’re extremely happy with the care we’ve received at CHOC. We were super thankful we got referred to the Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center. They have taught us much about how to best care for a child with autism. And if we’re in a better place, then everyone is in a better place.”
Lucas continues to have boundless energy.
“He constantly draws everywhere he can,” Cory says. “He’ll sketch every country in the world free hand and then fill them each in with their colored flag.
“He makes his own jokes. He makes his own cartoons. He endlessly makes us laugh and is an integral part of our family and we don’t know what we’d do without his peace. I couldn’t be happier that our story has a happy ending as I know that there are so many other stories that don’t go as well.”
Cory says the parental coaching and tools provided by Jiang were just as important as getting Lucas’ meds correct.
“We will forever be grateful for the Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center and we hope that we have a place there for life,” Cory says. “They have shown nothing but five-star concern for us. We feel like we’re family there and are at the best place we can be.”
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The Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental and Neurodevelopmental Center at CHOC is dedicated to bringing the latest treatments and resources to the autism community in Orange County.