In Focus, episode 5: Finding ‘hidden resources’ for autism care

four-year-old Gavin Cunningham plays on a trampoline in his family’s backyard. (Photo by Ben Flores/Cronkite News)

Raising a child with autism can be incredibly challenging under the best of circumstances. For families who live in small towns, far from big-city resources, it can be even harder. In this episode of In Focus, we talk with Elizabeth Gullikson, a 30-year-old mother and resident of Yuma. Her four-year-old son, Gavin Cunningham, has autism. Elizabeth and her family try to acquire the best help for Gavin, but it can take some serious digging to excavate the right resources.

The In Focus theme song is called “Wounds (Remix)” by Ketsa, used under Creative Commons.

This episode also includes “Happy Hour” by Lobo Loco, used under Creative Commons.

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Elizabeth Gullikson and her family of six live outside of Yuma, a town of 93,000 people. The youngest of the six is a four-year-old boy named Gavin Cunningham, who has autism.

Autism is a condition that often requires specialized treatment like occupational, speech, behavioral and sensory therapy. In small towns, those resources can be hard to find, and some families have to make do with what they have.

“In Yuma, the resources, I call them hidden resources, because you really have to search out and seek help,” Elizabeth said.

Brandon Billings, 14, talks to Gavin while he sits on the couch watching cartoons. (Photo by Ben Flores/Cronkite News)

Elizabeth tried to take Gavin to the Western Arizona Council of Governments (WACOG) Head Start program nearby. While the program has served other kids with special needs, Elizabeth says the program didn’t meet Gavin’s specific needs.

She also tried putting Gavin into speech classes at one of the school districts, but he was considered too skilled to be in the preschool classes. Jason hopes Gavin can get into a similar program in the future.

“I’ve noticed a little regression since we had to pull him out, with his enunciations and things like that,” Jason said. “But if we can get him into School District One with the early kindergarten, I think (it would be good). They were awesome over there.”

The main resource Elizabeth has right now is respite care. The respite care provider, Rosey, has done wonders in helping Elizabeth and her family care for Gavin. Rosey takes Gavin on Tuesdays and Fridays, giving Elizabeth and Jason several hours a week to get caught up on housework and other errands.

“On Tuesdays (the respite care provider) takes him to his group skills to teach him how to socialize,” Elizabeth said. “On Fridays, she picks him up and basically gives us a break, as well as giving Gavin a break from us, and it also gets him out in the community and really teaches him in a structured environment how to be out in the community, at a store or a park, and to behave appropriately”

The family dog, King, looks after Gavin as he plays in the backyard. (Photo by Ben Flores/Cronkite News)

Gavin’s needs can put a strain on the family’s finance and on the lives of his siblings.

With all of that, Jason admits it can sometimes be a lot to handle.

“It’s a handful trying to watch him, help with homework, get the nine-year-old out to his friend’s house, have (Brandon) going to do anything in the garage, while (Elizabeth) is trying to cook in the meantime,” Jason said. “It is a tough situation. We do what we can.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sources in the Public Insight Network informed the reporting in this story through a partnership with the Cronkite PIN Bureau. To send us a story idea or learn more, click here.