Eight-year-old Criscent is spending his first Christmas in the United States after being brought here to escape abuse from his village in Uganda. His family and new-found friends say he is already making progress. Lolita Lopez reports for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on December 25, 2012.
An 8-year-old autistic boy from Uganda traveled halfway around the world to spend his first Christmas with a local family.
Family members said Criscent Bahinyoza was constantly tortured, beaten and attack because he was misunderstood.
"As he wandered into people's homes he would be beaten as a thief and they didn't understand he doesn't talk," Pross Bahinyoza, Criscent's aunt, said.
"There were real risks of Criscent being killed," Michael Bahinyoza, Criscent's uncle, added.
His aunt and uncle in Canoga Park said they knew they had to do something. One day, at their church, Prince of Peace Episcopal in Woodland Hills, they heard Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson speak about her own son, Wyatt, who has autism.
"We kept looking at Wyatt, Nancy's son, and connecting the activities to him and that's when we knew that he really needed help," Pross said.
Alspaugh-Jackson who left corporate life to work as an advocate and activist in the autism world worked with the congregation to help the family.
The church raised thousands of dollars and the local autism awareness organization Nancy heads, ACT Today, wrote letters to the embassy to get permission for Criscent to come to the U.S.
"The church has banded together to fund an advocate for Criscent who will get him the care and services he needs from the school district and the regional center," Alspaugh-Jackson said, adding the group raised more than $4,000.
In conjunction with ACT Today, Criscent is also receiving a full line of treatment and therapy at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.
"We set up act for those families who don't have anything. Don't have insurance," said Tiffany O'Day of CARD.
"Recovery for me means not a cure but bringing the child as close to being neurotypical as possible," said Alspaugh-Jackson, adding that the children get treatment early in life, mainly applied behavior analysis.
"In many cases the diagnostic testing shows they no longer have autism," she added.
About her own son she said: "He is now high functioning, 11 years old mainstreamed in the school with typical children. He is the only child with autism in the class," Alspaugh-Jackson said.
"He likes new things he likes to break down things and put them to together, so we really see a big change and we are so proud by every milestone he has made," Pross said speaking of Criscent. He arrived in U.S. in October.
In just a couple of months, the progress for Criscent has been significant.
When NBC4 cameras were there, he took a liking to our microphone and then the boy who doesn't talk, found his voice.
He began singing into the microphone and even found the on and off button. Alspaugh-Jackson, who was in the room, was pleased.
These are the moments this family treasure despite the hardships. Eight family members share a small apartment. Pross and Michael Bahinyoza have their own child with developmental problems. Pross works part time and Michael is studying and unable to find a full-time job.
Melissa, 6, who had severe seizures as an infant, is also receiving a grant thanks to the generosity of others. Melissa cannot speak and is bound to a wheelchair.
"It's challenging but we will take it on. I think seeing so many people that have helped us inspires us to be of help one way or the other," Michael said.
"I have never seen them discourage. I have never seen them despair. They always say thank you. They have shown me such grace, I feel like I have been given a gift in knowing them," Alspaugh-Jackson said.
"It's such a blessing to see this happen and it makes me believe in miracles," she added.
"It's so huge that we can celebrate him alive and also celebrate the fact that he is also finding help," Michael said.
Tax deductible donations are welcome to help the family at www.act-today.org/SOS.