Able Academy in Naples helps diagnose boy with autism at 4 years old

Reporter: Taylor Petras Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:
Matthew Hernandez in school. Credit: WINK News

Helping nearly 300,000 children since it started, the Naples Winter Wine Festival begins on Friday. The foundation behind it is refocusing on education, not just in the classroom, but from birth. One little boy has this early learning to thank for a critical diagnosis.

Claudia Hernandez started noticing some unusual behavior from her 4-year-old son Matthew Alvarez around one year ago.

“He would just stand in front of the fridge and just scream because he was hungry, but he wouldn’t be able to tell me, ‘I want this or that,'” Hernandez said. “It was very stressful, like not being able to help your child and thinking he’s spoiled or I’m not doing the right thing.”

A teacher herself, Hernandez reached out to Jennifer Schaaff, the outreach coordinator for Able Academy in Naples.

“He wanted to participate, you could tell, but it was just too much for him,” Schaaff said. “So he would hold his ears and start to cry and would just become very upset, so we knew there was something we needed to do.”

After a pediatrician diagnosed Matthew with autism, Schaaff and her staff at Able Academy, located at 5860 Golden Gate Parkway got right to work, starting Matthew in one-on-one behavior analysis sessions.

“We work on, always, communication through verbal behavior, which is the behavioral way to teach language,” Schaaff said. “We work on independent functioning skills, social skills. Matthew was not able to play with toys when I first met him.”

The small class sizes and individualized attention help children like Matthew excel and set him up for a successful future.

“We’re able to diagnosis children younger and younger, and able to get them the services they need right away,” Schaaff said of the academy’s approach.

Not only is Matthew now speaking, but he’s also singing and dancing with other students, too. A video from his teachers of Matthew’s progress just one month into therapy gave his mom hope.

“I hope that he can talk,” Hernandez said. “He will talk and he will communicate and he will be able to do good by himself. He will be able to live by himself, to work.”

Matthew receives therapy from one of nearly 50 nonprofits that benefit from the Naples Winter Wine Festival. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, WINK News will air a special report, “A Taste for Help,” introducing you to other children who benefit from the festival. The festival is invite-only, but its online auction is already underway.

The link at the top of the story will bring you to more information about the foundation behind the festival, NCEF, and where the money goes.

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