At 4½ years old Franco can read better than most first graders, can name every train from Thomas the Tank Engine, and can spell words like "entertainment" and "universal." What he can't do — at least not yet — is tell you how his day was.
Franco has autism, a complex neurological and developmental condition that makes it harder for him to communicate what he’s feeling vs. the facts he knows.
“There are so many unknowns with autism,” says Franco’s mom, Dana Buttaro. “We can’t thank CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) enough for supporting Franco, for helping us learn how to best support him, and for continuing to research the causes of autism.”
Adds Franco’s dad, Frank Buttaro, III: “Franco is an amazing kid and we know he’s going to have a tremendous life.”
Milestones and warning signs
Franco’s early days were filled with typical infant milestones — smiling, rolling over, reaching for things, sitting up, walking. But at 15 months old, Franco still hadn’t spoken any words.
“That was a red flag to us that something was wrong,” Frank says. Adds Dana, “He was making sounds but not words.”
They talked to Franco’s pediatrician, Anna Schetman, MD, at CHOP Primary Care in Paoli, PA. Dr. Schetman was also concerned, but encouraged the family to give Franco a little more time to catch up. Three months later, when Franco was 18 months old and still had no words, Dr. Schetman advised the couple to make an appointment with a developmental pediatrician at CHOP and apply for early intervention services from the county.
Early intervention services began with occupational therapy, then physical therapy and eventually speech therapy. The visits from the county providers were limited but Franco did make some early progress. At 2 years old, he said his first word — car.
Soon after, Franco’s family met with Daniela Ziskind, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at CHOP Specialty Care on Market Street. After completing a full developmental and behavioral evaluation with Franco, the doctor confirmed what his family had feared: Franco had autism. He would need help to begin communicating with words, and long-term developmental support.
Dr. Ziskind recommended intensive speech therapy for Franco, which he began almost immediately with Kyleigh Pope, MD, CCC/SLP, a speech-language pathologist working at CHOP Specialty Care and Surgery Center in King of Prussia, near Franco’s family home.
“When Franco started seeing Kyleigh, that’s when he really started taking off,” Frank says. “Words really started to come more easily.”
By the time Franco was 3 years old, he had more words to communicate. By 4, the words were flowing and he was beginning to put them together. Now, Franco and his therapist are working on forming complete sentences and responding correctly when asked a question.
“He still struggles with words but we’ve learned to celebrate the little wins along the way,” Frank says.
“Being able to communicate has alleviated a lot of the frustration we used to have. Franco is much happier and more confident,” Dana adds.
Passion for the Eagles
Today, Franco is 4½ years old. He attends pre-kindergarten four days a week in a mainstream school where he’s building social skills and learning to follow directions and focus on the task at hand — the same as his typically developing peers. He excels at reading and easily absorbs new material, especially if it’s about one of his favorite things: country music, trains or the Philadelphia Eagles.
Franco’s passion for the newly-crowned Super Bowl champs runs in the family. His dad and granddad have been fans for years.
Franco’s interest piqued when he was just 3½ years old and attended the 2017 Huddle Up for Autism, a fun event for children and teens with autism and their families. The event is sponsored by the Eagles and raises important funds for autism research at CHOP. Franco’s parents set up a food stand outside a big-box hardware store and raised thousands of dollars for research.
When the family learned about the Eagles Autism Challenge, they knew they had to get involved. The May 19, 2018, charity event is a bike ride and family-friendly 5k run/walk to raise funds for autism care and research at Children’s Hospital, Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.
“We are a huge Eagles household and we’re appreciative of everything CHOP has done for our family,” Franks says.
“Participating in the Eagles Autism Challenge is a way we can pay that forward,” Dana says. “We can spread awareness of autism, and raise money to research and better understand it.”
Dana is going to run in the Challenge, while Frank walks and pushes Franco in a stroller. They are actively recruiting friends and family to join Franco’s team, or support them with a donation.
Franco continues to make steady progress improving his speech and communication. He’s become less frustrated and is beginning to show more confidence with his peers. Franco is looking forward to kindergarten, starting soccer, going on more rollercoaster rides with his parents, and meeting a few of his favorite Eagles players this spring.
His parents are looking further ahead.
“We hope that Franco has an extraordinary life,” says Frank. “That he gets married, has a child, names him Frank the fifth, and enjoys all that life has to offer. We want him to be happy.”