A World of Opportunity

Teacher and therapist Brooke Talley leads a classroom session at the Emerald Coast Autism Center. Photos by Shelly Swanger
A World of OpportunityChildren with autism and their families thrive at the Emerald Coast Autism Center
By Ann McQueen

Most families are thrilled with Disney World vacations. Heidi Blalock, however, was apprehensive as her family’s trip neared. Her son Max, 6, has autism, and she was concerned about his response to the barrage of sights and sounds.

“I was terrified,” she said, flashing a good-natured smile.

She has learned that maintaining her sense of humor along with a dauntless resolve are keys to her family’s success, keys that have opened doors for her son and other Emerald Coast students with autism. It was her family’s discovery of autism and its treatment that led her to co-found the Emerald Coast Autism Center.

A Day in the Life

Heidi and her husband, Brad, adopted Max and his younger sister Abigail, 5, raising both children from birth and maintaining relationships with their birth mothers. Max was a typical 1-year-old but began to withdraw into his own world. Tests pointed to autism. The Blalocks relocated to Miramar Beach in 2006 to be near Heidi’s mom, who retired here. They tried everything to reach Max.

Having read about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a one-on-one approach to treating autism that identifies children’s particular motivations to help engage them, Blalock tried hourly therapy. Max responded. When he started school, though, his progress slowed. Full-time ABA was prohibitively expensive.

Fast Friends

Staci Berryman was a therapist who worked at a clinic Max attended. With a background in special education, a master’s degree and board certification in behavior analysis, she and Blalock immediately became friends.

“We talked about the need for a program here, and the idea for a school naturally unfolded,” Berryman said.

Staff supervisor and therapist Brandi Zwak works with 5-year-old Tyler Parkinson on spelling exercises. Photos by Shelly SwangerStaff supervisor and therapist Brandi Zwak works with 5-year-old Tyler Parkinson on spelling exercises. Photos by Shelly Swanger

A year later, they co-founded the Emerald Coast Autism Center (ECAC) and opened its doors to five students in 2009. Today, 25 students attend ECAC, the only school of its kind in Northwest Florida. Berryman serves as its executive director.


“What’s this?” asked Brooke Talley in an exaggerated voice as she showed several students a picture of a car.

“Car,” answered one student.

“Very good!” she exclaimed, playing a recorded verse from a children’s song. She celebrated each word the children spoke and ignored fidgeting and boredom. The drill continued over and over while other teachers took notes on their student’s behavior.

This is the verbal behavior approach to ABA. Teachers at ECAC use it to show students that language is how to get what they want.

“Our teachers are like Mary Poppins on steroids,” Berryman said, explaining that it keeps kids engaged.

Unwanted behaviors like meltdowns are ignored. “That’s called the flinch factor. You can’t flinch or react at all,” she added.

In another class, some student/teacher pairs sat at small tables reading or practicing numbers while other pairs learned through games. Classes are based on skill level, and enrollment is open to children ages 2 through 11. No geographic limits are placed on admission since it is a non-profit, private school.

Daniel Mareno, 11, started school at ECAC in 2010. He, too, had slipped into his own world but reemerged with verbal behavior therapy. “It is such a blessing to see the progress Daniel has made since we’ve been here,” said Brandi, his mom. “They are giving him words. They are giving him a way to communicate. This affords Daniel to one day have a job, to have the freedom to make his own choices.”

Ultimately, ECAC’s goal is to provide an educational foundation that fosters success in adolescence and adulthood.


Tuition costs $39,000 a year, but there is help. Florida’s McKay Scholarship is a voucher program that allows parents of qualifying children to pursue school options. It has helped many families at ECAC.

ECAC established a scholarship in memory of a student there that has helped defray costs for others. A portion of the proceeds from April’s Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation benefitted this fund.

Florida’s Window of Opportunity Act mandates that insurance companies cover and pay to treat people with autism. In practice, however, its exclusions have limited its scope, though some families have received benefits, Blalock said.

Facing the Future

Although tuition covers some operating costs, the school must be subsidized through grants, private donations and other means. Capital is critically needed.

Another challenge is space. Administrators are looking for a satellite location. The school needs a shuttle bus, new playground equipment, and job coaches to help students prepare for employment.

When Berryman and Blalock dare to dream, they see a campus with a 20,000-square-foot building full of classrooms, administrative offices and therapy rooms on 20 or so acres with other facilities and services that help people with autism learn, live and thrive on the Emerald Coast.

Max and Abigail loved their trip to Disney World. Splash Mountain was Max’s favorite ride. Though he remained uninterested in most of the characters, he enjoyed meeting Mickey Mouse and offered him a high-five. The Blalocks had fun.

“Establishing our school has been much more than watching the kids thrive. It’s watching the families thrive. To see this is life changing,” Blalock said, smiling. ec