RMAC in the Lone Tree Voice Newspaper
Special to Community Media of Colorado
When Teddy Scena was 9 months old, his mother knew something was wrong. Teddy wasn't developing at the same rate as his older brothers. He was too content, she thought, his gaze not meeting hers with what seemed like normal frequency.
Maggie and Chris Scena, Teddy's parents, tried behavioral, occupational and speech therapies, but their baby made slow progress. When Teddy was 3, doctors bundled his developmental delays into a one-word diagnosis: Autism.
"It was almost a relief to have a diagnosis, to know there were things I could do for him," Maggie Scena said. "But it was a catch-22 because at the same time, I knew what we were facing. And that was hard."
After researching treatment facilities, the Littleton family found the Rocky Mountain Autism Center, then in Lakewood. The center moved to Lone Tree last month.
In the three years since the Scenas met center director Dr. Pat Rydell, Teddy has made dramatic progress.
"Before, I had always thought in the back of my head he would live with us his whole life," Maggie said. "Now, I think he'll hopefully go to college, be independent, have a job of his own. If he continues to progress at the same rate, I expect him to do whatever his brothers can do."
Autism is characterized by diminished social and communication skills, repetitive behaviors and limited interests.
Untreated autistic children can grow into lonely adults, their awkward social skills deterring potential friends, the comfort of repetition and sameness keeping them close to home.
"Left unchecked, you're going to have a 50-year-old adult who has to have things their way, and it's most likely a solitary experience," Rydell said.
Caught early, therapy can detour children from becoming hard-wired in these behaviors.
"Many kids with autism are very social but don't know how to be social," he said. "They may say, ‘Play with me, but according to my rules.' That reciprocal back-and-forth is not well developed."
Rocky Mountain Autism Center therapists focus on increasing cognitive flexibility, encouraging children to not only interact successfully with others but to engage with the world around them.
One in 110 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, which includes the milder Asperger syndrome. The incidence has grown significantly in the last 20 years to almost epidemic proportions, Rydell said. Why it's become more pervasive is unknown. So is its cause. Research suggests genetics and environmental factors both play a role. Doctors also are growing more skilled at its diagnosis.
Society also has become much more aware of the disorder. As little as a decade ago, Rydell said he often received blank looks when he told people his specialty.
"Now, everyone knows someone with autism," he said.
The increase in autism cases is among the reasons the Rocky Mountain Autism Center moved to Lone Tree. Its larger space on Park Meadows Drive opens the door for additional staff.
"We built this new facility so we can help more people," Rydell said. "This is our mission."
It also puts the center close to the growing south suburban medical community, including a large pool of pediatricians.
Unlike the Lakewood site, the Lone Tree space was unfinished, allowing Rydell to design a center that aligns with his treatment model.
Rydell believes in family-based treatment, which calls for large spaces to accommodate families and groups, in addition to small one-on-one treatment rooms. With family involvement, therapy doesn't stop at a medical office but continues into the child's daily life, he said.
Maggie Scena believes that approach was the key for Teddy.
"If I just dropped him off for therapy, I'm sure he would make improvements for the hour he was there," she said. "But with the whole family involved, he makes so much more improvement because we carry it home and work on the same things with him. I know what to do the rest of the time. His brothers know how to communicate and interact with him."
Seeing children like Teddy evolve drives Rydell not just to continue his three decades of work, but to expand his reach to as many people as possible. He encourages his staff members to eventually open their own practices.
"The need is so tremendous," he said.
Nevertheless, Rydell said the size of his practice will be deliberately capped. The logistics of a large center would undermine the family friendly model that is key to the Rocky Mountain Autism Center's success.
"We form relationships with families. It's like these kids are our own," he said. "We have no intention of being the biggest, but we do have the intention of providing the best care."
The center is at 8600 Park Meadows Drive, Suite 800.