Tyler Letso was born two months premature in the fall of 1989. If he had been born a few years earlier he may have not survived even a few days. His parents, Suzanne and Roger Letso, noticed differences in their child that the pediatrician explained away by his premature birth. By the time Tyler was a year old, the pediatrician was certain that the only thing wrong with him was his “overachieving yuppie mother with a penchant for a perfect child.” It was not until Tyler was close to 4 years old that the doctor acknowledged that his obsession with ceiling fans, cat tails, and lack of functional speech was something more than a slight developmental delay. Tyler was diagnosed with autism at a time when the incidence was only 1 in 10,000 and few doctors or education professional understood autism or had any idea of how to effectively treat this disorder.
Roger and Suzanne were on their own.
Tyler was enrolled in a special education program when he was three for over a year, but he made very little progress. He had no meaningful communication except a few echolalic phrases that he would repeat such as, “I want orange juice,” whether he really did or not. His inability to communicate was frustrating for Tyler and his parents, and he became increasingly prone to tantrums and self-injury. Not knowing what else to do, Suzanne would hold his hands at his sides to prevent him from hitting his head with his little fists. Life was hard and scary, and the future bleak.
Using her skills as a medical researcher, Suzanne found out what she could about autism and eventually stumbled upon the field of Behavior Analysis. She shared what she learned about state-of-the-art, scientifically validated educational practices with her son’s educators, who would not adopt any of the strategies she suggested, and in short order deemed Suzanne as the “Relentless-Mother-From-Hell.” Despite the school’s unwillingness to consider utilization of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) strategies, the Letsos began implementing a rudimentary ABA program at home on their own. Suzanne recalls, “It was astonishing to me that this little boy who I had begun to fear was uneducable suddenly was able to learn. He mastered 20 of the 22 learning objectives that had been on his Individualized Education Plan for over a year in less than 6 weeks.”
By this time, there were hundreds if not thousands of children on waiting lists to get into the few schools that provided ABA services to children on the autism spectrum, and only a handful of qualified Behavior Analysts across the country. The closest programs to the Letsos were in New Jersey and Massachusetts but it was quickly apparent these programs were overwhelmed with requests, and Tyler was not likely to ever be admitted.
The Letsos knew they needed to find professionals who could guide them to create a truly comprehensive program for Tyler and others like him but there simply were none in Connecticut at that time. Roger and Suzanne realized they would have to take matters into their own hands. They hired their first Behavior Analyst all the way from Florida and began a journey that would soon change the face of educational services for children and adults with autism in Connecticut.
In 1995, they established the Connecticut Center for Child Development (CCCD) as a nonprofit organization which initially operated out of their home with a corded phone and a cardboard box full of files kept by the dining room table. With one newly relocated Behavior Analyst, they began offering consultative services to school districts as well as conferences and workshops to parents and educators who wanted to learn more about ABA. It quickly became apparent that this was insufficient to generate the systemic changes that were needed.
Suzanne said, “I made over 700 telephone calls to churches, synagogues, businesses, real estate agents, YMCAs, private school programs, and anyone else I could to try to find a home for our fledgling program before finding an organization that would allow us to share space with them. The monthly phone bill could have wallpapered our entire living room.” In September 1997, the Letsos opened the first school program in the basement of the Trinity Baptist Church in Fairfield, CT with 13 students, 5 Behavior Analysts, and 10 instructional staff.
Roger recollected, “We were really grateful to the church for hosting us. I think they recognized we had a special program and wanted to help these kids that had very few other options. But we realized very quickly that we were going to need more space.”
Suzanne, Roger, and the families whose children were enrolled at CCCD set about raising the funds for a dedicated school facility. The Bridgeport Avenue Campus opened in May 1999. But school districts and parents kept calling and begging them to take just one more student – theirs. “Before we knew it, we were again crowded like clowns in a clown car and the hunt was on again for another campus. In the meantime, we were again lucky to be offered temporary classroom space at the Kingdom Life Church in Milford.”
Along the way, other CCCD programs emerged as parents or staff identified community needs including diagnostic and consultative services, afterschool/extended day services, an adult day program, a daycare center, school start-up consultation that assisted with the development of similar school programs in other states to name a few. Judy Palazzo, who has been with CCCD since 1999 said, “Our growth was always driven by the unmet needs of so many children. Sometimes it was a parent who made a request, sometimes it was a co-worker who identified a hole in services. We would look at each other and say, ‘If not us, then who?’ Then we work together to problem solve and create another new program.”
In March of 2010 the Wolf Harbor Campus opened and CCCD personnel thought they would have enough space to meet all of the needs of their students and families. But, within a few years they were again renting space and looking for another building.
The Boston Post Road Campus opened in February 2017. According to Roger, “This new facility enables us to continue to expand our slate of services to include new classrooms for children with diagnoses other than autism, an Early Intervention Clinic, and an Advanced Intervention Clinic, with additional space for future growth.”
Suzanne went on to say, “Over the last 20 years, CCCD has not only expanded, but undergone a metamorphosis. We recently changed our name to Milestones Behavioral Services which represents our growth into other special needs populations and our dedication to helping the children and adults we serve become the best versions of themselves.”
If asked about their son, the Letsos will tell you he is a happy, productive young man who enjoys his life. He is still challenged by his autism but is not defined by it. Roger and Suzanne are proud of the man he has become and are grateful to be his parents.