PICO RIVERA – As he proudly displayed his medal for academic achievement while swapping high-fives with his dad, it was clear to everyone inside the Birney Elementary School auditorium that Nicolas Villaneda had come a long way since being diagnosed with autism at age 2. Unlike many children with autism, Nicolas, 7, is able to communicate clearly and participate in activities like any other child. “He’s been such a joy,” his teacher, Maria “Sunny” Slaven, said at a school assembly Thursday in which Nicolas was honored for his academic progress. Having Nicolas as her student taught her a lot about teaching – and also touched her heart, she said. “His mom is really receptive and open, and always asked for help when she needed it,” Aniversario said. “He exhibits the benefit of early intervention.” Ruth Villaneda had to come to terms with Nicolas’ differences early in his life. By age 2, she said, he was already displaying signs that alerted her. “By 2, a lot of the children we knew that were Nicolas’ age were talking,” she said. “They were very engaged socially with their families, they played with toys, seemed interested in making friends or at least in playing. Nicolas preferred to be alone.” Villaneda described Nicolas as taciturn for his age, but prone to sudden tantrums for no apparent reason. He was disturbed when his daily routine was interrupted or altered, and though she often tried explaining things to him, he did not understand. In particular, he did not deal well with social functions. “We were always the first to leave birthday parties or social gatherings,” she said. “Going out to dinner was very hard. It seemed like the rest of the world was just a little too loud. Going out was like sensory overload for him.” The Villanedas took Nicolas to his pediatrician, who referred him to a speech therapist. The family eventually ended up at the Eastern Los Angeles Regional Center, a private, nonprofit organization that serves people with developmental disabilities. The Regional Center’s psychologist diagnosed Nicolas with autism. Shortly afterward, he was enrolled in an early intervention program for very young children, where Villaneda said he received assistance with speech, language and communication. Villaneda described going through a period of grief after the diagnosis. “I felt a little as if the life we were anticipating for Nicolas was over. But I was also relieved because there was an actual name for the behavior I was seeing,” she said. She realized fairly quickly that being in denial would solve nothing, so she began seeking help. “The window of opportunity is only so long,” she said. “The earlier they are diagnosed, the better.” Both Villaneda and Aniversario praised Slaven for her support and understanding, which helped Nicolas succeed this year. “This teacher really understood that it takes Nicolas two or three times more effort to do what other kids do easily,” said Aniversario. “That’s what’s outstanding about this year – and that’s what most people tend to miss.” Slaven said she received a great deal of support from Birney school officials in dealing with Nicolas, her first autistic student. “I knew that if I came to a situation that I needed help with, there were other people I could turn to,” she said. “We were all constantly working together, collaborating.” Aniversario has high hopes for Nicolas. “I haven’t seen any limit to what Nicolas is going to do, with appropriate support,” she said. Nicolas remains focused on being treated like a normal kid. Like any normal kid, he recently saw the movie “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and could identify with the characters, he said. “Just because you have autism, doesn’t mean you’re a mutant,” said Nicolas. People with autism, “are not morons,” he added. “They don’t have three arms and four eyes; they are human. Kids with autism can do things, too.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2“He wants to be like an ordinary student. I treated him like any other student. And he rose to the occasion,” Slaven said. Nicolas is classified as a “fully included” special education student, which means that although he has been diagnosed with a disability, he is capable of participating in and benefiting from general education classes. Nicolas had very few problems with his fellow second-graders, Slaven said. “Everyone gets along. All the kids help each other,” she said. “They know Nicolas is different, but I didn’t highlight it or bring attention to it. I tell the kids that we’re all different.” Speech language pathologist Lisa Aniversario, who worked with Nicolas for two years, attributes much of his success to the early diagnosis and intervention he received.