‘He came here and something clicked'

Laura Withers' 6-year-old son, Antonio, is all wiggling arms and legs, with big brown eyes and the kind of honest smile that can lift the mood in a room.

He also has a condition that various experts have credited to a half-dozen different causes, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional problems and low IQ.

But his mother recently learned that none of those diagnoses apply.

Her little boy simply has a speech-language disorder that prevents him from easily processing and recalling information.

Finding that out – after three years of searching for answers – has convinced Withers that the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center is the greatest of United Way's 90-plus charities. The center, located near Interstate 77 and Woodlawn Road, gets 34 percent of its funding from United Way, about $400,000 annually. Should the United Way's annual fund drive fall short as expected this year, the center would be among the charities hardest hit.

That worries Laura Withers, who sees the center as her last hope. It has only been three months since the staff diagnosed Antonio's disorder, but he's already showing improvement, she says.

“Finally, at age 6, we can understand what he's saying,” says Withers. “Before we started coming to the center, his talk was garbled. Now, he's asking questions about everything: ‘What's this?' ‘What's that for?' ‘Why does this do?' It's as if he's excited and trying to catch up on all the learning he missed.”

Antonio's twice-weekly therapy sessions at the center cost about $500 a month. But they're being provided at no cost to Withers, who is a financially struggling single mom and college student.

The center is the only nonprofit in the region that provides speech-language and hearing services to people of all ages, regardless of income. It helped more than 7,000 low-income people in the region last year, including providing free hearing aids for seniors and free speech screenings for preschoolers in Charlotte's high poverty neighborhoods.

“What makes us unique is that we seek out people who need help,” says Angie Rikard, director of speech language services at the center. “We have grant programs and other funding sources that allow us to go into low income communities. Other companies just can't afford to do it. We don't just sit and wait for the people in need to come to us. We go find them.”

Speech and hearing disorders are considered the most common handicap among preschoolers, often leading to behavior problems and learning disabilities.

That was the case with Antonio, whose condition often compelled him to do the opposite of what he was told. Some specialists tried to convince his mother that the boy had yet another condition, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which made him purposely disobedient.

“If I told him not to pick up a butcher knife, he'd walk over and pick up a butcher knife. If I told him to go get his socks, he'd open the refrigerator. If I told him not to run in front of cars, guess what he'd do? He'd go run in front of a car,” says his mom.

“You want your child to know how much you love him, and I felt I couldn't even communicate that to him. But he came here and something clicked. It's like the center discovered the missing pieces, and for that, I considered this place a blessing.”

She has no idea how long it will take to complete Antonio's therapy. Years maybe.

But for now, she's happy just to have a little boy with a million questions, even if she doesn't have all the answers.