13-Year-Old Student Excels, Raises Autism Awareness

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Jacob Hinojosa doesn’t seem different from other 13-year-olds. But as he listens intently to his history professor from the front row of his class in the Undergraduate Learning Center, he stands out from the other freshmen at The University of Texas at El Paso.

His playful grin and his shy demeanor are not the only things that set him apart from his older classmates. When he was 6-years-old, Hinojosa was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that impairs his ability to interact socially and communicate with others. The disorder also affects his sensory motor function, which makes it hard for him to tie his shoes and make a Miner pickaxe hand gesture.Jacob Hinojosa, a 13-year-old UTEP physics major, and his mom, Rosa Marin, are grateful for the accommodations they receive through UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service Jacob Hinojosa, a 13-year-old UTEP physics major, and his mom, Rosa Marin, are grateful for the accommodations they receive through UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service   

For most of his life, Hinojosa has relied on behavioral therapy to learn basic life skills, from making eye contact to learning sarcasm.

But instead of allowing Asperger’s to hinder his life, Hinojosa and his mom, Rosa Marin, have used it to unlock Hinojosa’s hidden potential. Last August, the future physicist began taking classes at UTEP.

“The thing about autism is that most people view it as a disability,” said Hinojosa, a full-time student, who finished his first semester with a 4.0 grade point average. “However, assuming that they choose the hard route, the one that actually requires work and time like my mom did, the thing is that they can actually bring out other amazing things with it.”

A Better Diagnosis

The hard route that Marin took started with her being disheartened as she watched her oldest son miss all of his developmental milestones – he didn’t speak until he was 5. A pediatric neurologist diagnosed Hinojosa with Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit disorder. Unsatisfied with the doctor’s diagnosis, Marin took her son and his two younger siblings to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Hinojosa was diagnosed with ASD.

After five months in Washington, Marin returned to El Paso intent on giving her son the best life possible.

“The first step is getting a better diagnosis and then it is so liberating,” said Marin, who received her Bachelor of Multidisciplinary Studies from UTEP in 2010. “But after you get the diagnosis, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to use it as an excuse? If so, how counterproductive is that for your child? Or are you going to empower yourself? At least for me, that's the way I looked at it. It's going to make us or break us.”

Breaking Bad Habits   

For Marin, early intervention is the key to her child’s success. With the support of her husband, Martin Hinojosa, she home schooled their son. But Hinojosa would soon surpass her knowledge. He read books to teach himself about world history, anthropology and the Chinese dynasties.  A visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington piqued his interest in science and led to his fascination with the universe.

The couple also began using behavioral modification to deal with their son’s obsessive behavior, including his germ phobia.

UTEP Occupational Therapy Assistant Professor Eugenia Gonzalez, Ph.D., has been a pediatric therapist for nearly 30 years. She has more than 20 years experience in early childhood intervention.  

She believes the best way for children with autism or developmental delays to learn language, communication and basic life skills is by teaching family members how to incorporate treatment principles into their everyday lives. 

It is also important to intervene with children before they are 3 years old because by then, children have developed bad habits that are hard to break, she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorders can be diagnosed as early as 18-24 months after birth.

“If we can capture the baby before they have deficits, then it's much easier to have the families learn strategies that are proactive rather than having me (as a therapist) work with a child or an adolescent to fix a problem that has already been a part of them for years,” Gonzalez said.

Community Intervention

The CDC estimates that autism spectrum disorders are prevalent in 1 out of 88 children. Studies show that children in primarily Hispanic communities are under-identified, Gonzalez said. 

She is working with the departments of Occupational Therapy and Speech-Language Pathology at UTEP, the Paso del Norte Children’s Development Center, Region 19 Early Childhood Intervention, El Paso First, Project LAUNCH, and Texas Health Steps to conduct a survey to find out what screening tools pediatricians in El Paso use to diagnose autism in children.

The study is part of the Community and Academic Partnerships for Health Sciences Research (CAPHSR) in the College of Health Sciences, which brings health sciences faculty and community groups together to advance the health care needs of the community and reduce health disparities. 

The study’s goal is to encourage pediatricians to screen children for autism by 18 months of age. Gonzalez said if children can get into a therapy program before 36 months of age, their outcomes improve and they are more likely to become productive members of society.

“We want to discourage the ‘let's wait and see attitude,’” she said. “We want to make sure that there is a proactive approach. We don't want to wait a year for the child to come back for a doctor’s visit to see if the problem has persisted.”

It Runs in the Family

While no one knows for sure what causes autism, Gonzalez said the disorder is most likely biological and children are born with it. Researchers also do not know if it is genetic, but there is a strong familial link, she said.

Looking back, Marin remembers her younger brother exhibiting the same anxious and obsessive behavior that Hinojosa had. Her older brother’s exceptional skills and mature attitude as a child also came to mind when she noticed Hinojosa’s similar demeanor.

Her brothers were never diagnosed but they would go on to successful careers. Her younger brother is a commissioned officer in the Navy and older brother is an attorney in New York City.

“I would have done a disservice to my brothers if I had not learned from what they went through,” Marin said.

The UTEP Experience

Hinojosa attended pre-kindergarten and one semester of kindergarten, first and fifth grades and the entire seventh grade at different schools, but Marin felt that the school districts were unable to meet her son’s educational needs.   

Hinojosa found his school work tedious and refused to return to public school after the seventh grade. That is when Marin made her son an offer he couldn’t refuse: If he passed the ACT test then he wouldn’t have to attend the 8th grade.

Using his birthday money, Hinojosa bought the ACT/SAT preparation guides. For two weeks before the exam, he studied new subjects and taught himself trigonometry.

His score was high enough to meet the University’s admission standards. He took the Accuplacer test, which determined what reading, math and English courses he could take at UTEP.  

“I was a bit in denial because he had just turned 13 years old one week before the ACT,” Marin explained with a laugh. “But it was hard for me to let my 13-year-old come here. I know that he makes good choices all the time, but it was hard not knowing what other people's intentions would be.”

She shared the news with her older brother, expecting him to discourage his nephew from becoming a Miner at such a young age. Instead, he offered to pay for his tuition. The only thing he asked in return was that he could accompany Jacob on his first day of class.

This spring, Hinojosa is taking three classes and two labs. He receives special accommodations through UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services, which include a note taker and extended time to take tests.    

But he understands that he couldn’t have achieved so much without the help of his No. 1 fan: his mom.

“In theory, anybody could do what I did assuming that there is the support,” Hinojosa said. “However there is this thing about autism that the OCD manifestations can be seen as negative, but if you can convince the child to redirect that toward education, then the child will be fine, and I have to thank my mom for that.”