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Zarnow: Found in translation

Julie Chau Diep, a mother of two young children, uses their Disney video to make her point.

Maybe it's motherhood, or maybe it's an occupational hazard, but she can tear up over Pocahontas singing "Colors of the Wind."

How high will a sycamore grow?

If you cut it down, then you'll never know.

Diep is a bilingual speech-language pathologist specializing in autism. You could say it's part of her job to see the potential in every child.

Or, maybe, it's her calling.

She advocates for early intervention against autism. She founded OC Autism, a non-profit organization that grew from a website ( into an organization offering free workshops and family events. Diep funds the group with the income from her clinic in Garden Grove.

It seems like Diep's personal challenge to prove that, regardless of official diagnosis, each child has a higher potential.

"I don't want to chop down my sycamore trees. I want them to grow. They are higher than people ever give them credit for."


Diep, 36, takes pride in the fact that others often refer to her the most difficult cases: "The children everyone gave up on."

She thinks she succeeds partly because she deals with a child's behavior as well as speech.

She has postgraduate training in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), therapy used to treat autism. Diep herself was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit disorder – and she feels an empathy that emboldens her to try a different approach with patients.

"I engage the entire brain ... the entire the body. I want them to use all their senses ... not just hearing.

"I tell parents: It's not that a child cannot hear or cannot speak. It's just that that part of the brain is not the most interesting part for them to stimulate."

Optimism is one thing, but still it surprises that Diep talks about literacy to parents of children with autism. She spoke recently at a benefit for Autism Speaks OC and the National Center for Family Literacy.

One criteria of autism, after all, is impaired ability to speak. It's particularly cruel to parents who can be desperate to hear their child declare: "I love you."

Reading, understanding that written words can be spoken, can seem far away and, frankly, can feel like a lower priority than speech. Research shows that in general children with disabilities are exposed less to books and reading.

Diep, a former speech pathologist with the Garden Grove Unified School District, has a different view.

She defines literacy as all forms of communication, not just reading and writing – and not always verbal. Even if your child never utters his love, you can still feel it.

Diep says literacy is the ability to receive and express your thoughts, ideas and desires. With a special-needs child the purpose is still making a connection, but the pathway might be different.

"Everyone communicates ... Just sitting there might say: 'I enjoy being here.'"

Forging a connection, she suggests, might not happen through words. Engage all the senses to discover the way a child receives language. Instead of showing a bottle of water, for example, she might shake it to make a child pay better attention. Diep shakes hers – and you realize water also makes a sound.

She suggests that a picture or movement can be the foundation for developing a range of skills from reading and writing to storytelling.

"It's a scaffolding ... Maybe you start with a picture, associating sounds, and then gradually replace it with a word."


To put it simply, Diep approaches a child's behavior from the inside out. Rather than defining a "problem," she tries to discover how the child sees the world.

"Why is the child shaking his hand? Maybe he just likes that movement. Give him a toy to shake and work on that itch."

Her point: Your goal shouldn't be just to stop it. You've got to respect the child's world, but convince him our way is as interesting as his.

"Don't get rid of behaviors. Replace them with something just as enjoyable."

It's a message of boundless optimism, but it's grounded on the belief that we need to intervene early and often.

If the signs of autism can be seen even before age 1, much can be accomplished before age 2.

Diep calls herself a "tour guide" for parents. But within the Vietnamese community she's Paul Revere — spreading the word. She says in general there's a reluctance to seek diagnosis and services.

About 1 in 88 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Diep notes the estimated cost of caring for a special-needs child in a lifetime is about $3.2 million. Early intervention can yield a 65% reduction in spending.

The outcomes, and the outlook, are better.

So she's on Vietnamese radio and television defining autistic behavior and explaining that it's nobody's fault. She counters common misperceptions in the Vietnamese community, explaining that a child with autism is not "stupid," the mother is not "bad," and autism is not a "bad" word.

"In the Vietnamese community there is only normal and crazy. There is no in between ... It is hard to accept your child is crazy."

Her message? Better to identify a child with autism and begin intensive treatment early than to ignore it.

Diep is committed to the community where she lives and works. New Hope Therapy Center, which she directs, offers services in Vietnamese, Spanish and English.

You can't help but notice that Diep seems downright joyful in her work.

"This is something that I love ... I make less money, but I am more successful."

Pocahontas might make her cry, but she laughs more.

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