Editor’s Note: This article appears in the May-June issue of Down Home Magazine published by The Herald.
The large entrance room is filled with toys and games, piled high on shelves and stashed in containers on tables. The high-ceiling makes the room appear to be a massive playroom. But at Chrysalis Autism Center in Rock Hill, it’s all used as tools to educate children.
“We want them to feel like they’re playing,” said Tobie Presler, who opened the nonprofit center in 2008. “We use things they love to teach.”
Each child has his or her own work station. Each toy, photo, puzzle, game is inventoried and numbered. Each piece is a learning tool. Fact is, Presler said, they often have to teach the children how to play with the toys. The students here don’t follow a mandated school curriculum. Each child is worked with one-on-one for 20-40 hours a week, plus parents are given plans to follow at home.
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“It’s truly individualized,” Presler said. “Every child with autism is different. If you met one child with autism, you met one child with autism.”
She explains autism doesn’t have physical traits. It’s “a neurological communication disorder, and no one knows the cause.”
Intervention, she says, is crucial for children ages 3-5.
“One in 68 kids is now diagnosed with autism. If these children don’t get intervention, they aren’t going to reach their full potential,” Presler said. “We want them to be like any other kid.”
Presler, 57, is a Rock Hill native. She taught special education for 15 years. Nine of those years, she worked in Clover school district. She ultimately moved into a district coordinator role preparing children with disabilities for employment after graduation and as an autism specialist.
Presler said she knew as a high school student she wanted to work in special education. But life took her in a different direction -- the mother of two children and earlier careers as a hair stylist and a waitress. She went back to college at age 30 and earned a bachelor’s degree in special education from Winthrop University.
“I knew this was what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.
She said it was her experience with one child, who “within five minutes destroyed the classroom,” that led her on the path to learn more.
“This child was different,” Presler said. “Everything I tried seemed to backfire into extreme behavioral issues.”
She learned about Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, and realized “this is what I’m going to be able to do to help this child. I just knew that’s what needed to be done.”
ABA, Presler said, is a research-proven method of treatment for children with autism. Early intervention, she said, is a critical component for their development.
“We didn’t have any providers in our area,” said Presler, who was among the first in the state to become an Associate Behavior Analyst, certified in 2004 by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. “The difference I could make in the students’ lives was huge.”
With the support of her husband, Charlie, she opened York County’s first early intervention center in 2008.
“He didn’t give me a choice,” she said of her husband of 20 years. “It worked out.”
By 2012, it was an official nonprofit. The goal, she said, is to keep children from falling through the cracks and “serve as many kids as I possibly could.”
“Many students have average to above average intelligence, but you don’t truly know what they know,” she said. “Early intervention helps them communicate what they know.”
She named her center Chrysalis for transitional phase, as in the cocoon of the butterfly.
“That sounds corny but it brings tears to my eyes,” Presler said. “You see these kids in this world not even connected, they don’t understand this world. They’re alone. Through therapy, you see them emerge and grow and develop and connect with the world around them.”
Presler started Chrysalis with one student. The center has served 35 students and currently has nine enrolled.
“Through the use of toys and other motivators, we work to decrease the excessive behavior … and increase deficient behavior, like improving communication skills,” Presler said.
She has three supervisory level teachers, seven lead therapists, four line therapists and an office manager.
“It’s a tough job,” she said. “Everybody here is so important. Without them it just wouldn’t happen.”
As a consultant, Presler sets a baseline of the problem then “determines if the child is making appropriate progress and learning at level.”
Pierce is 9. He came to Chrysalis at age 3.
“He couldn’t talk and wasn’t potty trained,” Presler said. “All he did is run around the room.”
He learned sign language first, and is now verbal.
At his station, therapist Amy McCurry flips through cards with photos, cartoons and line drawings.
“What color is this?” she asks, holding a photo of a flamingo.
“Pink,” he says.
“What’s this animal?” she asks, quickly showing different cards.
“A pig, a cow, a horse,” he says.
“What a good student you are,” Presler tells him.
Parent Laurie Corson of Clover attests to the positive results of ABA. She’s known Presler for a decade. Her son, Alex, started working with Presler at age 3 in public schools. She said her son started talking and having less behavioral issues.
Then Presler left to open Chrysalis.
“He stayed but we did not see progress,” she said.
That’s when she began driving 500 miles a week for three years, year-round, to get her son ABA therapy through Chrysalis.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything, for the progress that he’s made,” she said.
Alex, now 13, is on his sixth-grade level in mostly regular education classes getting As and Bs at Clover Middle School.
She said her son puts his own breakfast in the microwave, and will be learning to do his own laundry.
“We know we made the right decision,” Corson said. “There is no way in the world he’d be anywhere near where he is without Chrysalis and having Tobie involved in our lives.”
Now, the Corsons help raise awareness to autism and the Chrysalis center, where her husband Philip is a board member.
“I wish she could service 100 kids,” Corson said. “Words can’t express what having access to something like Chrysalis means. We feel very blessed.”
Presler says her biggest obstacle has been working with client’s personal insurance and Medicaid coverage.
“The financial side has always made it difficult,” she said.
Fundraisers held during April for the Light Up Blue, and donations, help, as well as grants. Presler thanks Springs Close Foundation for a $37,000 donation last year.
“It was a lifesaver,” she said. “I see bright things for the future.”
There are other ways to help, too.
“We have pictures to be laminated and kits organized,” she said. “We have volunteer jobs, too.”
Artist Jackie Clarkin, whose paintings decorate walls at the center, and twin sister Geri Schohn, friends with Presler since childhood, work with the children on art projects. This year was the second year for an art exhibit at Gallery 120 in Clover during April for Autism Awareness Month. A coinciding exhibit was on display at Lake Wylie Public Library.
“Most are nonverbal and the littlest thing they can accomplish means so much,” said Schohn, a retired middle school teacher.
While the therapy is both time and resource intensive, Presler says the payoff is worth it.
“That’s why I’m willing to come in and fight the fight every day,” she said. “We’ve had parents tell us that we’ve given them their families back. They can go out in public without their child having a meltdown. They can be a family again.”
Catherine Muccigrosso: 803-329-4069
Chrysalis Autism Center
Address: 410 Oakland Avenue, Suite 101, Rock Hill
What is autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences. - autismspeaks.org