The Sunderlands’ lives were changed by the care their son has received in Seattle. Efforts are underway to help more families access these services.

Share story

Gareth had a good day.

His grandpa took him to the park, where the 6-year-old showed his prowess on the monkey bars. Back at home, he bounced through the door and headed to the basement playroom with his siblings under the watchful eye of their parents, Bill and Alyssa Sunderland.

This could describe a typical Saturday for many kids. But for kids like Gareth, who has autism, good days can be precious.

Across the U.S., about one in 59 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. At the University of Washington, a groundbreaking exploration of autism is underway. From inclusive learning to genetics research to diagnoses, these efforts are centered on helping children of all abilities access the resources and education they need to thrive.

Looking for answers

“We knew something wasn’t right as early as seven months,” says Alyssa. Gareth was a happy baby who showed signs of growth and language development, but not in the usual forward trajectory. “He would say a word or gain a skill, then lose another,” she says.

The Sunderlands’ pediatrician recommended that Gareth be screened for developmental delays through a birth-to-three program. One option stood out immediately: the UW’s Haring Center for Inclusive Education.

Founded in 1964, the Haring Center studies, tests and disseminates best practices for inclusive learning — and trains teachers from across the country.

Learning better by learning together

“One problem we continue to face in the U.S. is that children with disabilities are more likely to be educated in segregated settings and excluded from extracurricular and school-based activities,” says Ilene Schwartz, Ph.D., the Haring Center’s director.

That’s despite studies showing the immense benefits of inclusive classrooms, says Jennifer Fung, Ph.D., a research scientist for the center: “We know that kids who are included more have higher graduation rates, are more likely to be employed and live more independently.” Typically developing peers benefit from the experience, too.

To ensure that all students can take part in activities, Haring Center teachers provide personalized help to students who need it. For children with autism, much of that care stems from one of the center’s largest research efforts, Project DATA (Developmentally Appropriate Treatment for Autism).

As part of Project DATA, Gareth spent the first half of his day with typically developing peers and the second half receiving intensive individualized instruction. Since it began in 1997, the Project DATA model has been adopted by teachers in more than 25 states.

The Sunderlands are working to help other kids access the same care their son received. (University of Washington)
The Sunderlands are working to help other kids access the same care their son received. (University of Washington)

The importance of early diagnosis

The Sunderlands also attended workshops for parents of children with autism at the UW Autism Center. With faculty and staff from the School of Medicine, the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Education, the center conducts research on autism and trains UW students and community professionals in providing services.

Though Gareth was diagnosed as a toddler, “The average age in the U.S. for diagnosing autism is four to five years old,” says Annette Estes, Ph.D., the center’s director.

Those few years can make a huge difference. “Evidence-based early intervention has been shown to move the needle tremendously,” Estes says — and the earlier a child receives those interventions, the more effective they are.

Helping more families access autism care

In 2018, Gareth started first grade. The Sunderlands understand how fortunate they’ve been to be able to access and afford his care. That’s why they’re involved with major efforts across Seattle, including at the UW and Seattle Children’s, to ensure that all families with children on the spectrum can access life-changing services.

“Very few families are as lucky as we are,” says Bill. “There are a lot of kids who could benefit from the services Gareth received, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be easily accessible.”

Because every child, including Gareth, deserves as many good days as possible.

Learn more about the University of Washington’s research at uw.edu.