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Taking the Lead

Eric is your typical teenager. His feet kick in some pretty rad shoes, he’s got an endless list of stories about good times with his friends, and he’s looking forward to school being out for the summer.

There are also some amazing things that set Eric apart. He’s captivated an audience on stage for both school and community theater programs, often singing under a pretty bright spotlight. He’s also first chair viola for his school’s orchestra.

And then there’s his autism diagnosis. For Eric, the road to being an involved student looking forward to high school was paved with a lot of hard work—work he didn’t do alone. When he was diagnosed with autism just before his third birthday, his mom, Cindy, spent a week resisting the new reality autism put in her family’s lap. It was through a parent training session she attended at SARRC in 2005 that shook her from her denial.

After that, they all got busy.


The O’Dells first stop was SARRC’s JumpStart® program, which had recently been introduced as a resource providing state-of-the-art information, support and training to families with children recently diagnosed or at risk for ASD. They were one of the first families to complete the program at SARRC’s then new campus, and those first few weeks set the tone for the next several years.

“I remember there were still boxes in the lobby,” Cindy O’Dell says. “We literally just jumped on it. We learned how to advocate for our son, and if there was a training to take, we did it.”

During their time at SARRC, the O’Dells participated in everything from the organization’s More Than Words® program, aimed at helping parents better understand their child’s communication, to music and occupational therapies. Every little thing they did was making a difference, but it wasn’t the leaps and bounds the family was hoping for.

Then Eric and Cindy were asked if they’d like to participate in a new training SARRC was offering, one that required commitment from child and parent to learn and adapt. Called Pivotal Response Treatment® (PRT), this method was being presented by a special guest, Daniel Openden, Ph.D., BCBA-D, who would soon become SARRC’s clinical director and who now leads the organization as president and CEO.

“Cindy O’Dell really embraced this model,” Dr. Openden says. “This is why it’s so important to involve the parent in this. Nobody is more motivated to help their child than a parent. They want to know that they are doing everything they can.”


PRT is intensive. It’s an approach that aims to help the child with ASD increase their functional communication skills while decreasing disruptive behaviors. Interactions are observed, and patterns are recognized to uncover opportunities to redirect a child, to teach them the best ways to communicate their needs and to interact. The ultimate goal for most parents, including the O’Dells, is to see their child participating in mainstream classrooms, activities, social groups and more. And as Dr. Openden says, it’s the parent’s commitment that often translates to the most positive results.

“PRT changed everything for Eric,” Cindy says. “Inclusion was always so important to us. I wanted him to be mainstreamed when he got to elementary school, but my worry was what it would be like for him on the playground, or being able to eat with someone rather than gravitating to sitting alone.”

Cindy continued to work with Eric, mainstreaming him on SARRC’s recommendation, but with fair warning that it would be hard, but not impossible. Even now, almost 10 years later, Eric remembers his first time making new friends.

“There was this thing I would do, inviting other kids to draw with chalk with me,” Eric says, recalling a friend technique he’d learned, taking something he enjoyed to give him something in common with his peers.


For Cindy, her experience with PRT training, as well as many of the techniques she learned through SARRC, sparked an unexpected career change. She began assisting in classrooms, finding she was able to apply a lot of the things she learned at SARRC to help students in the classroom. She is now a certified teacher working at the same elementary school that Eric attended in Chandler.

Meanwhile, Eric has moved on from chalk drawings on the playground. Now a self-described “drama kid,” he’s looking forward to his first year of high school, when he gets to work with bigger casts on bigger productions, doing a little bit of everything he loves.

“Music is sort of a language everyone can speak,” Eric says. “And the people who are in theater never have a reason to be mean. Drama people are very understanding. Drama and music just make me who I am.”


JumpStart provides state-of-the-art information, support, and training for parents of children up to age 6 who have recently been diagnosed with or are at risk for ASD. Learn more about SARRC's trademark JumpStart program, which now includes an online option.

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