Progress to Date

Funds Raised 2020: $102,556

18% of ATPF 2020 Operating Budget

Children Screened: 20,602

SLP Students Trained at SJSU: 2,300

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At the Autism Tree Project Foundation, a non-profit education and screening program for youth with autism, young Jeremiah Mitchell, 4, met with Speech Language Pathologist Kara Dodds. — Peggy Peattie

Early autism detection helps, but it's hard. 

Starting therapy early for children with disorder is key to getting them on path toward adulthood and potential self-sufficiency

By Bradley J. Fikes   APRIL 2, 2015

Autism is hard to define because it isn’t just one thing. It’s an array of neurological disorders that can trap the subject into his or her own body, unable to relate to others.

These conditions reflect a spectrum of severity, from the slightly socially awkward but brilliant geek to the profoundly autistic child who never learns to speak or use the toilet.

And the causes are also diverse.

Genetics are known to be risk factors, as are environmental conditions. The autism rate is twice the normal incidence among those conceived with assisted reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.

Autistics may engage in repeated patterns of movement, making sounds or manipulating objects. This self-stimulatory behavior is called “stimming.”

The genetic side of autism involves numerous gene variants, each of which has only a small effect on its own. Some of the genes have been linked to patches of disorganized cortical tissue in the brains of people with autism.

Additionally, maternal antibodies that attack a fetus’ brain are implicated in about one-quarter of autism cases.


While all of this research work is complex, therapy for people diagnosed with autism is more straightforward. Therapists seek to train autistics in the skills of social interaction, such as responding to questions and looking at the person conversing with them.

The younger a person starts autism therapy, the better.

Jeremiah Mitchell, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, nestles in his grandmother Josefina Ring's lap. He tends to play by himself, ignoring someone right next to him. But his symptoms have lessened after focused therapy. — Peggy Peattie
But diagnosing autism early on can be challenging, because the signs can be subtle and parents and doctors need to know what to look for.

The Autism Tree Project Foundation, a San Diego nonprofit group that helps autistic children and their families, sponsors a free screening program in preschools to identify children who may have autism or other developmental disorders. The service is provided by Kara Dodds and Associates in San Diego and Jean Novak of San Jose State University.

Children flagged by the screenings as possibly having one of the disorders are examined by specialists, with the goal of obtaining an official diagnosis.

Without early intervention, mild to moderate autism can lead to bigger troubles down the road, when therapy is less effective, Dodds said.

Signs of autism
• Doesn’t make eye contact.

• Fails to respond to his or her own name, or to a familiar voice.

• Doesn’t point or wave.

• Regresses in social development.

• Doesn’t make simple requests.

Jeremiah Mitchell, who soon will turn 4, has moderate autism that might be missed without such screening, said Dodds, who saw him at Autism Tree’s headquarters in San Diego. Dodds notes that Jeremiah talks and will answer questions.

It’s what he doesn’t do that warns of potential problems. Jeremiah tends not to look people in the eye and will play by himself, ignoring someone right next to him. And he doesn’t initiate conversations.The screening consists of three parts.

First, the targeted children’s teachers are educated on the signs of autism, including social issues and behavioral problems. Second, screeners directly observe the youngsters, often in small groups. They look at the social interaction or lack of it, the kids’ use of language and whether the children are more fixated on objects than peers around them.

“Another big aspect of what I’m looking is echolalic speech,” Dodds said. “These are kids who are talking, but are really not coming up with their own sentences. They’re echoing back what adults say to them. And when they echo you, they’ll often make pronoun errors. They’ll refer to themselves by their name.”

The third part of the screening is performed by the school, which is given a training kit on how to use speech and music therapy to integrate children with social and language delays into the rest of the class.

Jeremiah was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and his symptoms have lessened since thanks to focused therapy.

“When he was little, he would cry a lot,” said Josefina Ring, his grandmother. “He’d wake up crying in the middle of the night. And there was the eye contact. He would never look at you. He’d kind of see you but not see you.”

Jeremiah also appeared frustrated, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t, Ring said. He also was frequently sick and had ear infections.

Ring said a physician who examined Jeremiah dismissed the concerns.

“I tried to tell the doctor something’s wrong and he said, ‘He’s just a crybaby.’ ”

For Jeremiah and others people children with autism, the goal of therapy is to teach them social skills that come naturally to others, Dodds said. That way, his own path toward adulthood and hopefully self-sufficiency will be easier.

Dayna & Garret Hoff in the San Diego Union Tribune

Written by BRADLEY J. FIKES on Thursday, May 30, 2019.

Autism never affects just one pereson. It changes the lives of entire households. How well they can cope depends on the condition's severity and the support available to each family. The public, too, plays a role.

Here are the stories of two affected families:

Garret Hoff has no problem keeping busy. When he's not at Francis Parker School in San Diego, the 14-year-old is often preparing for a play with San Diego Junior Theatre. On Wednesday, the Point Loma resident went off to England for two weeks with his class. And when he gets back, Garret plans to start interning for state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine.

Not too bad for any teen, let alone one with autism.

"Autism hasn't really stopped me." Garret said during a recent interview at the Autism Tree Project Foundation. The nonprofit group was co-founded in 2003 by his parents Danya and Todd Hoff, after his diagnosis.

"I've done San Diego Junior Theatre for three years." Garret said. "I'm planning to gear up for another show. I've worked with the foundation since I was 7." 

The foundation offers autism screenings for preschoolers, so that children with the disorder can recive help early in their lives. The group's services are free.

The Hoff's got Garret diagnosed early as well. They had turned to Dr. Doris Trauner, a neurologist at UC San Diego. Danya Hoff knew Trauner from her job as a pharmaceutical sales representitive. 

"(Garret) was using the corner of his eyes (to see), so he was always running into things. So we had him to every eye specialist. We were looking at so many different things," Danya Hoff said. "Finally, Doris speant a couple of hours with Garret watching him play, and diagnosed him."

Danya Hoff quit her pharmaceutical job and helped her establish the Autism Tree Project. With Trauner's advice, she not only learned about autism, but how to help other parents who have children with autism. To learn more about the foundation, visit or call (619 )222-4465.

Steven Frischling of New London, Conn., is raising Simon, his 7-year-old son with autism. The boy's emotions can turn violent in an instant, especially if he's thwarted. He's got a great throwing arm, which he may exercise nonstop for hours if he's angry.

"He is a delightful kid; he loves to give hugs, he loves to give kisses," Frischling said. "On the other hand, he often has no idea what he's saying."

Simon is also a fanatic about cooking, both as a viewer of TV shows on the subject and in the kitchen, preparing meals with the upmost concentration.

Frischling said warning signs appeared in Simon's behavior before he was 3.But there was no specific diagnosis at first. "The best answer they could possibly give us was, some things were off," Frischling said. "And I've got two other kids to gauge by this."

Today, he still struggles to find words for that expreince. "It's hard to explain to somebody until they've actually seen it to inderstand what;'s unusual about it," Frischling said. "One of our neighbors summed it up best: He looks completely normal, until he isn't." 

Simon also shows a signs of Tourette syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder, but his health care providers haven't made diagnoses. The town's autism program is well--funded, Frischling said, and that may be an issue.

"They're hesitant to change his diagnosis because it may affect the service he gets," Frischling said, adding that autism services are relatively well-funded by government and private groups.

Dealing with autism is hard enough. Frischling said it's even harder to take the reactions of strangers who lecture him on how to handle Simon when the child is having a meltdown in public. Hardest for Frischling, though, is when his son gets bullied.

"I have seen people who are 13, 14 push Simon," Frischling said. "I have seen people make comments about Simon, adults, and I watched his brother walk up, get in their face and educate them on who his brother is. I can;t do that, but if a 9-year-old does, it gets their attention." For all the awareness about autism in the media, Frischling said, there doesn't seem to be enough awareness and sensitivity amongst the public.

Dayna Hoff at Bella Vista 6th Anniversary

Written by BRADLEY J. FIKES on Monday, May 13, 2019.

Bagels and biology. Cocktails and chromosomes. Music and medicine. And for a backdrop, the Pacific Ocean and the Torrey Pines Gliderport.

Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé, a spot for social and professional scientific networking -- or just eating and drinking -- celebrated its sixth anniversary last week.

Perched on the second floor of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, the Bella Vista draws scientists from Torrey Pines Mesa’s extensive life science community. Thousands are within easy walking distance. One block to the south, there’s the Salk Institute. UC San Diego is one block to the east, across North Torrey Pines Road. The rest of Torrey Pines Mesa is a short drive away.

Inside, there’s a modest pan-and-handle-shaped dining area, enclosed by glass windows and doors. Outside, there’s an extensive deck with tables, couches and, when needed, heaters. And as a nod to the region’s workaholic science community, the Bella Vista is open every day. (Hours posted at

Regulars include the biotech networking group French BioBeach, which meets there on the second Friday of the month. Scientists often seen there include UC San Diego cancer researchers David Cheresh and Dr. Catriona Jamieson. Other visitors include Martin Cooper, generally regarded as the inventor of the cellphone; and Dayna Hoff, founder of the Autism Tree Project.

Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford attended the Bella Vista’s anniversary bash last Tuesday. Sanford said he’s been coming there since the consortium bearing his name opened. (He contributed $30 million to its construction).

“The food is outstanding,” Sanford said. “I helped a young lady put together a daughter’s wedding reception right here. We had over 200 people on this deck.”

Philanthropist Malin Burnham, a friend of Sanford’s, said the socializing also helps science.

“It gives scientists the opportunity to have lunch or wine at the end of the day and compare notes,” Burnham said. “This type of atmosphere advances science, because people get together who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise, and it just speeds things up.”

Everything is overseen by owners Amanda and Nicolas Caniglia, who play complementary roles.

Nicolas is the chef and guardian of the menu. Born in Europe of an Italian father and French-Swiss mother, he mixes the Old and New Worlds in the Bella Vista’s cuisine.

Amanda is the extroverted connectress. A third-generation restaurateur who studied dance at UC San Diego, Amanda greets and introduces guests, and keeps an eye out to make sure people are enjoying themselves.

Of course, both work the kitchen as needed. One downside to the restaurant’s popularity is that at peak periods, staff is stretched thin and lines lengthen.

The restaurant is profitable, and the goal is to increase the profit, Amanda Caniglia said. To do that, the Bella Vista, which now serves beer and wine, is applying for a hard liquor license.

Last Tuesday evening, the Caniglias introduced a new themed menu, with selected dishes given names for patrons. There’s a salmon dish, “The Einstein of the Ocean,” named for the late Walter Munk, UCSD’s pioneering oceanographer.

Patrick Ingram, owner of consultancy Agile Jet, credit’s Amanda’s social skills for weaving it all together. He can be found on the menu as “International Man of Mystery.”

“She has created with her charisma and personality a community that’s unique,” said Ingram. “And she’s done it by sheer force of personality.”

ATPF Founder & Executive Director Dayna Hoff honored at the Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary 53rd Annual Women of Dedication Luncheon

Written by Lisa Kaufman on Monday, June 4, 2018.

Hoff one of 12 women honored at the longest running charitable event in San Diego

We are sending out a big thank you to the San Diego Union Tribune for the article featuring on our very own Founder & Volunteer Executive Director Dayna Hoff. Hoff was honored by the The Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary of San Diego County at the 53rd Annual Women of Dedication Luncheon on May 30, 2018. The luncheon marked the 53rd year of honoring incredible women who give back in their community, making it one of the longest-running charitable events in San Diego. The theme, “Wonder Women,” acknowledges the remarkable lives and actions of the honorees. Congrats Dayna on this award for more than 15 years of tireless work and dedication to ATPF!