Anne and Scott Holtan were concerned when their toddler son, Ryan, wasn’t talking.

They took him to a local health department for a wellness screening and found that the only area he was proficient in was vision.

Doctors put tubes in Ryan’s ears and referred him to speech, developmental and occupational therapies to help with his communication skills.

Then, the family began noticing that their younger son, Tyler, was displaying similar symptoms. The boys had trouble maintaining eye contact and could only communicate with gestures.

The boys, now 12 and 11, were eventually diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behavior.

While therapists gave them advice on what they needed to do, the Holtans still needed some help with how to better communicate with their children.

They found their way to Augustana College’s Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing in 2005 and entered the More Than Words program.

The program, created by the Hanen Centre in Canada, provides parents with the tools, strategies and support to help their children reach their full communication potential.

“We were so impressed with the class here at Augie,” said the Coal Valley stay-at-home mom.

The Rock Island college tries to offer the program every four or five years.

In late September, the center will open 12 slots free-of-charge, thanks to a $10,000 donation raised during the Royal Ball Run for Autism in June.

The Royal Ball Run, for which Anne Holtan volunteered, raised money for autism awareness and local programs.

The donation also will help provide scholarships for autistic children to receive speech-language therapy at the center.

Alli Haskill, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, said Augustana seeks out grant money in order to offer the program for free to families who have newly diagnosed children.

“Families with autism have unbelievable amounts of expenses, so we’re just really excited to be able to have the opportunity to provide it,” she said.

For the first eight weeks of the 10-week program, parents work with staff in a classroom before moving on to sessions in the home.

For some children diagnosed with autism, verbal communication never happens. Instructors work with parents to explore communication options, such as sign language, to determine what works best for the entire family, Haskill said.

“Especially when parents are early in the diagnosis, there’s always that hope that there will be verbal language,” she said. “Of course, that’s always the goal, but sometimes you have to start by using augmented means.”

One skill parents might learn is how to adapt a routine, like bathing, to help expand the child's commenting skills, Haskill said.

At home, parents can practice using extended pause time when waiting for verbal or gestural responses from the child, she said.

Parents’ interactions with the children at home are videotaped to help get a baseline for the specific goals, both short and long-term, that families want to achieve in terms of communication, Haskill said.

Instructors and other classmates also critique the videos to provide further feedback, Haskill said.

Augustana students, too, get a chance to participate in the program. Students will babysit for parents who attend class. They also assist with classroom presentations and activities and go along on home visits.

“They get to really learn about the real challenges these families face,” she said. “Our goal is to expose students to working with families in a really meaningful way.”

Anne Holtan said that while she and her husband still have their challenges, the program has helped her find better ways to interact with the boys.

She talks constantly to them about what she’s doing during the day.

“In their receptive language, they understand everything that’s going, but they just can’t communicate back,” she said.

The class also took away the “scariness” of the clinical lingo and gave her a chance to talk with other parents about their experiences and offer her own advice.

“Diagnosis is not the end of the world, it’s just different,” she said.