Vivian Villamil earns solid grades, especially loves her art class and enjoys spending time with her half-sisters. The 14-year-old also has autism and is a patient at the Thompson Autism Center at CHOC.
With the loyal support of friends like you, our center is the first of its kind in the region. As such, we’re expanding capacity to serve the increasing number of children with autism spectrum disorder and related neurodevelopmental conditions.
In Orange County, 20 percent of children in special education classes have been diagnosed with autism. This is the highest rate of any county in the state, according to CHOC neurologist Tom Megerian, M.D., the center’s medical director.
Dr. Megerian explains, “We’re looking at not only being able to make the earliest diagnosis, but also to provide a medical home for children with autism. We’re also here to provide support and education to parents, siblings and extended family members. Our goal is to help families celebrate the achievements their children can make when they reach for and attain their maximal potential.”
Vivian was withdrawn and would barely talk before coming to CHOC. She was failing at school, had poor hygiene habits and would cry over the smallest things. Vivian received her autism diagnosis at age 11.
At the center, pediatric neurologists like Dr. Megerian work closely with psychologists and other team members to maximize the treatment approach. Amy Morse, M.D., a clinical psychologist with specialized training in pediatric psychology, began seeing Vivian in person just before COVID-19 forced the sessions to be conducted online via live video.
“She was scared about being on camera,” Dr. Morse remembers, “which is common with kids who have autism. And her mother was concerned she wouldn’t be able to participate in therapy by video.”
Slowly but surely, Vivian began to engage in the telehealth sessions with Dr. Morse. Her mom Leticia is thrilled with the progress Vivian is making. “Some parents think they can help their child themselves without any help—but the only one who ends up suffering is the kid,” she stresses.
Being involved with Vivian’s therapy at the center and meeting other parents of children with autism has made all the difference for both mom and daughter. Leticia calls their experience with us “absolutely phenomenal.”
Dr. Megerian says the primary benefit of the center is having the therapist and the physician working together and talking to each other regularly. He describes Vivian as going “from being this very introverted and shy girl with severe social anxiety to talking more and being more outgoing. She has a voice now. It’s really a miracle.” Learn more about the Thompson Autism Center at CHOC by visiting our website.