Jill Brokaw knows she's not the only mother who had, what she terms, "a very challenging infant."

Brokaw, of Aledo, had her son Jacob seven years ago. Her son’s birth came shortly before her military husband, Travis, was deployed. While she has a supportive family in Aledo, the dental hygienist essentially was a single mom for a time, and she knew something was up with the baby.

When a pediatrician failed to share her concerns, Brokaw issued an ultimatum: "If you don't help me locally, that's fine, but then I'm driving to Iowa City, and I will sit in the Emergency Room until someone does help me," she recalled.

She was referred to a speech pathologist at the Black Hawk Area Special Education Agency. Little Jacob was given regular occupational therapy and developmental therapy starting in 2010.

The boy, who now is 7 years old, was non-verbal, had high anxieties and major separation issues. "I was very scared to put him in a public school setting," Brokaw said.

However, people in Aledo were "beyond helpful and accommodating," she said, and Jacob started school in the Mercer County community.

Special program

He continued to struggle, and at age 5 he started speech therapy at Augustana College's Center for Speech, Language and Hearing, Rock Island.

After a few months, his parents were invited to participate in the eight-week More Than Words program at the center.

The program is designed specifically for parents of children 5 years old or younger who are on the autism spectrum or who have communication and social issues. (It will again be offered this year, and openings are available.)

A formal diagnosis is unnecessary, but the program provides parents with tools, strategies and support they need to help their children develop appropriate skills. It also involves in-home training, with a certified instructor.

Brokaw is pleased with the progress her son has made since participating in the More Than Words program.

"He's doing amazing now," she said, adding that Jacob can speak in sentences, and he knows his numbers and his letters.

"His communication abilities were so low for so long. We were not sure of his interests," she said. "Now that he is starting to speak, he knows things we discussed years ago."

About the program

The More Than Words curriculum comes from the Toronto-based Hanen Centre, and two Augustana professionals have been certified and specially trained to teach it. Allison Haskill directs the Augustana Center for Speech, Language and Hearing, and Joni Mack is a clinical supervisor.

Haskill describes the program as "very, very parent-friendly," with hands-on videos with different topics. The focus is on parents, but up to three family members may attend.

Participants sign up for 2.5 hours of classes that continue for eight weeks. Onsite child care is provided to the children and their siblings.

The free-to-families program is grant-funded, including a $20,000 donation from Augustana's Royal Ball Run for Autism, Haskill said. Scholarships are given to 10-12 families.

Value of research

A diagnosis of the Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, can take years, but communication issues are often evident at a young age, the specialists said.

Research shows the curriculum is most helpful for parents of the youngest children, usually 2-3 years old, Haskill said. While the program does not require that the families have a formal diagnosis, children should be identified as having social/communicative issues.

The program is intensive, and that's one reason it's so successful, Haskill said. Families learn during classroom time, and there also are two home visits.

Mack brings her iPad to a home and makes a video of the parents interacting with the child during a specific activity. She also makes suggestions on various techniques that might work to improve communication with the child.

She makes a second video at the end of a program to show the parents how they have progressed or changed in their approaches to the children.

Jacob's mother said the in-home visits were among the best parts of the instructional sessions.

"It was absolutely awesome," Brokaw said, noting the instruction is customized to each family's situation.

Drive in from afar

Families often drive a distance to Rock Island to take part in the program, Haskill said, noting it caters to residents of both Iowa and Illinois. This year, for example, one family drives from Galesburg.

Haskill points out the program can be overwhelming at times, as parents, for the first time, learn to communicate with their children in different ways.

Parents interact with parents who have similar experiences, while are trained professionals help along the way.

"It's so nice to see parents in the classroom react to each other," Mack said.

Haskill noted the children are on various parts of the spectrum; some are non-verbal, while others talk so much "you almost have to be a professional to know if they are affected or not," she said.

In addition, parents adopt various strategies to help their children. In the Brokaw family, Jacob still has two different speech pathologists whom he sees regularly, and last year he started therapy at the Quad-City Autism Center in Moline.

Jacob, now a kindergartener in Aledo, has an aide, more for safety issues than anything else. "He has come leaps and bounds, and I'm so proud of him," Brokaw said. "He's the hardest-working little guy I know, that's for sure."