CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It has the look of a children fun center you'd find packed on any given Saturday. It has ball pits, mini-zip lines, swings, chalkboards and toys. But this place in Pineville is not a home to birthday parties, it is home to Carolinas HealthCare System's rehabilitation center for kids.
It's where you'll find children like 5-year-old Ivanka - a little girl whose view of the world can be a little scattered. She has autism and if often puts her sense of touch, sight, and sound on overload.
"Ivanka, let's listen to music," calls out her therapist Tina Collup.
Ivanka's nervous system needs calming. Collup is trying to get her attention to slip on a pair of wireless headphones that are programmed to play specially engineered music.
"What it does is exercise your cranial nerve," said Center Director Michelle Yoder. "It's much like your bicep, the music sort of forces them to listen and the muscles kind of contract and relax."
Once the headphones are on, Ivanka gently rocks in a hammock and within a minute or two she is focused.
"When she came in she was pretty disorganized and as soon as we put the headphones on she totally calmed," said Yoder. "The idea is to get the nervous system organized so then she can do something functional."
On this day, the something functional was working on holding a marker properly and coloring.
"It was important that we were all honest about what was happening," said Ivanka's mother, Rosa Bowe. "We are very grateful for our kids. We are going to support them to be the best they can."
Did you notice Bowe said "them?" Ivanka has a twin brother named Mateo and, like his sister, he is also on the autism spectrum. The two face other medical challenges as well, which is typical of children with autism. Doctors and therapists are just a part of the Bowe family routine.
"We can't be tired, you can't stop fighting, you can't stop giving them the chance," said Bowe.
The first step in the fight was made three years ago. Ivanka and Mateo were diagnosed early, at the age of 2.
"Kids are being diagnosed earlier, that's the difference I've seen over the years," said Yoder.
Yoder has a lot of experience. She started working with children with autism more than two decades ago as an occupational therapist.
"Early intervention is the key, the earlier we can get them and start working with them the better outcomes we have," said Yoder.
But the average age of diagnosis is still around age four. It's when more obvious clues to the disorder, like speech delays, social difficulty and lack of eye-contact become evident.
The push is on though to identify symptoms of autism much earlier. Researchers at UNC Chapel Hill are using brain scans to predict autism in infants as young as six months old. Others are working on a blood test which could one day lead to an even earlier diagnosis.
"The brain is so pliable and moldable and changeable especially if they have sensory issues we can at a young age kind of re-circuit or change the brain," said Yoder.
Ivanka and Mateo are proof that hard work and early intervention can make all the difference.
"Every day they show us things they said they were not supposed to do," said Bowe.
Like out of the blue when Bowe realized Mateo could actually read.
"A lot of times we would speak to him and he would not look at us, but he's absorbing all the information," said Bowe.
Progress - it's all any parent can hope for their children, and it starts with picking up the signs of autism early.