Atlanta mom returns to college to help young son diagnosed with autism

At Leonora P. Miles Elementary in Atlanta, Kanesha Burch teaches her second graders is in one classroom while her son, 6-year-old Antonio Gaylord Jr., attends kindergarten in another.

woman teaches group of students at table

Kanesha Burch was willing to do anything to help her son, Antonio, who diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The Atlanta teacher went back to college to get a degree she knew would help Antonio. Today, the 6-year-old is thriving.

Burch says he's in a really good place now, after a pretty rocky start.

When he was 3, Antonio grew quiet and distant.

"So, he almost lost all of his speech," Burch says. "Then, also, socially, he isolated himself from other children, and he was aggressive. I found him to be very overstimulated by his senses, to lights, sounds, taste, textures, tags."

Antonio, she says, was kicked out of two different daycares for behavioral problems.

boy listens in class

Kanesha Burch was willing to do anything to help her son, Antonio, who diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The Atlanta teacher went back to college to get a degree she knew would help Antonio. Today, the 6-year-old is thriving.

"And, when I tried to take him to other daycares, without even giving him a chance, they would say, 'Oh, we can't meet his needs,'" Burch says.

Antonio was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, a common developmental disorder that affects behavior and communication.

"It was very frightening," his mother says. "As a parent, you don't expect it, and as a parent, you're trying to figure out why."

She was able to get him into two studies at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Marcus Autism Center, where they recommended ABA, or applied behavioral analysis.

Marcus Autism Center psychologist Dr. Nicole Hendrix says ABA is an umbrella term for techniques that focus on positive reinforcement and teaching children "replacement" behaviors.

"What we're paying attention to in ABA is, we're trying to increase behaviors that we would like to see," Hendrix says. "So, for example, social skills, day-to-day and adaptive skills, and we're paying attention, as well, to those behaviors we want to see less of. Those behaviors that might be harming to the child. For example, self-injury or aggression towards others."

Marcus Autism Center had a waiting list. 

So Burch did some research and found an online graduate program at Purdue University for a Master's Degree in psychology with a focus on ABA. 

"I applied, I got in, because I already had my bachelor's in early childhood education, and I studied it," she says. "It's been the best thing I could have done for my child."

Because by learning about ABA, she opened a door.

"I learned so much about Antonio," Burch says. "I learned why he was doing what he was doing socially. I understood how to meet him at his level to help him."

Hendrix says Burch's commitment to her son is "huge."

It took 18 months, but Kanesha graduated.

She and Antonio have been working hard ever since, and it seems to be paying off.

"He wants to interact with his peers, he's open to it," Burch says. " His speech is much better. He's starting to speak in complete sentences now."

Recently, Antonio Gaylord did something brave, she says.

He overcame his sensitivity to crowds and noises and walked across the stage   

in front of the whole school, to receive his A-B honor roll award.

It's a sign, his mom says, of how far Antonio has come.

"I felt overjoyed," Kanesha Burch says. "I felt like my hard work paid off.