Yarisa Echevarría, 31, sometimes feels like someone has kidnapped her son, Joseph. Without warning, he went from a high-spirited and intellectually curious 18-month-old to a child she couldn't recognize. Hints of Joseph's once affectionate demeanor, infectious laughter, and even his growing vocabulary were gone. Worse yet, he stopped responding to his name. After months of pushing the pediatrician for testing, the culprit had a name: Autism. Joseph was diagnosed with mild to severe autism. "The hardest moment is when they tell you that something is wrong with your child, and this is it," says Echevarría.
Unlike a cold, a fever, or even depression, there is no medication for autism. In fact, little is known about the causes of the developmental disorder. Parents will talk about the anguish of trying to get through to their autistic children, who often stop interacting, communicating, and learning. In some instances the signs can be even more dramatic: children rock or flap their hands for hours. And, autism isn't something children outgrow. In severe cases, the disorder keeps them from ever becoming fully functioning adults.
Determined to give Joseph a fighting chance at a normal life—which is possible—Echevarría sought help from specialists. At times, she'd intervene and supplement his lessons when she saw he wasn't making progress. Anxious to help him understand concepts, Echevarría would sometimes find herself galloping on the floor so he could make the connection to the horse on the index card.
Then two years ago, she took that determination a step further, leaving her job in finance to get formally trained to work with Joseph's autism. Echevarría hoped this would help Joseph. And when she hit a wall when she was looking for adequate summer programs and other professional resources, Echevarría simply decided to start her own with the help of one of Joseph's teachers.
After seven months of working tirelessly to establish the non-profit, securing an affordable space, hiring teachers, Echevarría opened Learning Links (now a full-fledged school that goes up to second grade) last June. Though most of the 15 students are Hispanic, a reflection of their Miami surroundings, not all have developmental disorders. Because the goal of the school is to eventually trickle the students back into a regular, age-appropriate classroom, the curriculum is set up in a way that makes the program beneficial for any learner. For example, if a student has mastered the art of cutting paper with scissors and another hasn't, one can teach the other. Rosie Perez, a parent of a daughter with no known developmental issues and a son with Fragile X Syndrome, was simply delighted that she could send both to the same summer camp. Amazed at the progress both children made—and that her son, who often cried when left, was now waving her goodbye—convinced her to switch him to the school. "Yarisa is doing this for her son, but she's helping out so many parents in the process," says Perez. "It's that kind of emotional tie that's missing from many of the programs."
While Echevarría's drive is exponentially high, so is the price of giving each child that kind of education. But that doesn't keep Echevarría from admitting children whose parents can't afford the cost. To make this possible, Echevarría—who is also an artist—conducts fundraisers and taps into the family's savings.