MIAMI — The Elliott who recently greeted visitors with a big grin and a T-shirt declaring him a "Perfect Gentleman," and proudly showed off a paper airplane that came close to flying, is far different from the Elliott who would have come to the door less than a year ago.
That Elliott — the one still reeling from the years of abuse against himself, his siblings and his mother, the one who had yet to get behavioral therapy for his autism — would have violently rejected new people, said his mother, Hasina Brinson.
"There was a time when you would have come in and Elliott would have punched you and not used his words," she said. "It's a lot better. He's not banging his head against the wall."
Her house in Miami's Buena Vista neighborhood was once the site of 5-year-old Elliott's unpredictable bursts. Brinson removed a wall mirror because Elliott used to shove his 4-year-old brother, Ethan, into it.
Now the home is filled with the regular laughter and occasional delighted squealing of Elliott, Ethan, and their 7-year-old sister, Jazmine. Toy drums and a picnic table decorate the living room. Bins of dolls and soccer balls line the wall. The children chase the family's three young house cats, Celestia, Luna, and Tiger.
"Everyone says, 'Your house is so peaceful,'" Brinson said.
Two years ago, Brinson, 37, kicked out her boyfriend of eight years, the father of her three children, after she accused him of grabbing her around the neck, pinning her to the bed and trying to strangle her until she lost consciousness — with her daughter watching it all.
Brinson, who had gotten a temporary restraining order against her ex in 2012, obtained an indefinite restraining order against him in 2015 after he failed to show up in court, records show. The children haven't seen their father since, she said.
"It was really hard. It took me the last four years of the relationship to actually leave and not come back," Brinson said. "You get used to being with somebody, even if they're hurting you."
After obtaining the temporary restraining order, Brinson said she got help from Chrysalis Health center. She learned how to cope with her own anxiety issues, which were leading her to grind her teeth. But after obtaining the permanent order, Brinson sought help for Elliott.
She signed him up on a waiting list for the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, or CARD. Nine months later, she said, Elliott got an appointment.
Early on, some doctors had told Brinson that all Elliott needed was "discipline."
"He's high-functioning," Brinson said. "When you look at him, he seems to be a typical child."
But she knew loud noises and the dark — which he associated with late-night fights between his parents — made Elliott anxious. He had trouble communicating and engaging with other kids. He hit himself.
Last December, Brinson brought Elliott to parent-child interaction therapy with CARD's Meaghan Parlade, who holds a doctorate in clinical and developmental psychology and coordinates the center's intervention services.
Elliott, Parlade found, "had been abused by his father since the time he was a baby, for years, and the mom wasn't aware of it until he was 3 or 4 years old."
"She had been a victim of domestic violence herself but wasn't aware of the abuse to her children," said Parlade, who noted Elliott's two siblings also have developmental disabilities under the autism spectrum.
Once a week over eight months, Brinson and Elliott went to Coral Gables for therapy, coaching and parent training. At first, Elliott wouldn't even sit down and play with Brinson, Parlade said. Now not only can he share time with Brinson — he enjoys dance lessons at school. His mom would like to get him into martial arts, to continue learning self-control.
"I saw, in the time that I worked with them, just an amazing transformation, not just in Elliott, but I think what was more striking to me, in his mom," Parlade said. "I just saw her confidence in herself, and her ability as a parent, grow leaps and bounds. He's really come a long way, and I think his mom is the biggest reason for that change."
Brinson has a home health aide, and support from her mother and sister, who live nearby. But the family still needs help from the Miami Herald's Wish Book holiday program. Hurricane Irma did a number on the roof of Brinson's gated pink house. Water leaks into her bedroom. A contractor estimated fixing the damage would cost about $7,000.
"I was like, 'Isn't that a new roof?' He said, 'No,'" she said. "I don't have that."
Brinson works part-time from home in telenetwork communications, which means she offers tech support via phone. Her office is a converted den that doesn't have air conditioning.
"I just kind of sit down with a fan," she said. "The kids are in the coolest room in the house."
She would like to add an air-conditioning vent to that part of the house, so that eventually Jazmine could have her own room. Money to clean her existing central A/C unit would also help.
She's reluctant to ask for more, though the costs of life as a single mom add up. For Elliott, she'd like karate or taekwondo lessons, even if only for a couple of months, so he can at least try them.
Asked what she needs most, Brinson replied with a laugh: "A clone."
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