by Tori Hamby

Before the end of this summer, 4-year-old Cannon Cowles had trouble transitioning between activities without having a severe emotional meltdown. The autistic child could barely walk across a balance beam without assistance or hang from a monkey bar because his core muscles were underdeveloped.

But thanks to some help from North Mecklenburg High School Senior Austin Beasley and Brain Balance, a neurobehavioral development center, Cannon has made significant strides.

“We would go from sitting here doing something for three minutes and then get up and go do something else – he just wouldn’t have the attention span,” said Cannon’s mother, Leslie Cowles. “Now I can sit down with him and complete the task before he goes and does something else.”

Austin met Leslie Cowles and her son through Austin’s mother, Robin. The two women work together at a Charlotte dentist office, and Cannon’s struggles and challenges with autism inspired the teen to focus her senior graduation project on the disorder, which affects one in every 110 children in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. However, Austin’s teacher told her that the project’s focus was too broad, and she needed to find a way to narrow down her thesis.

Meanwhile, Cowles heard about Brain Balance Achievement Centers, a network of 47 nationwide achievement centers that work one-on-one with children who have neurobehavioral and learning disorders. The centers use an intensive 12-week, three-times-a-week program that hones both academic and language skills, while improving fine motor skills.

While Leslie Cowles and her husband, Ronald, were happy to learn that one of the Brain Balance centers was located in Pineville, the program’s hefty price tag gave them a reason to pause. Because the work that Brain Balance does is considered non-medical, insurance companies don’t cover the cost and Cannon’s already expensive treatments left the family with little to work with.

“I thought, ‘this sounds phenomenal, but it’s just not something we could afford right now,’” Cowles said.

However, after Cowles told Austin’s mother about the program, the teen came up with the perfect way to narrow down the scope of her senior project. She decided that the purpose of her project would be to prove whether or not the program would improve Cannon’s neurobehavioral functions. The only thing left in the way was the $6,000 to send Cannon.

Austin kicked-off her fundraising efforts in November 2010 by collecting gently used items for yard sales held during the spring of the following year. She also organized a Zumbathon at The Greens at Birkdale Village, led by instructor Annette Nicholini, who offered her personal training services for free, and sold tickets for a lake party at the home of family friends Dale and Melissa Shue.

Between her efforts and individual donations, Austin was able to raise the money in time for Cannon to begin the program on June 3. Cannon completed the program a few weeks ago and Austin said he has seen remarkable improvements in the boy’s behavioral and cognitive abilities.

“I saw changes and vast improvements each and every week,” Austin said. “His achievements included learning to ride a bike, balancing and walking the balance beam, doing sit-ups, strengthening his core, trying new foods, adding new words and even putting sentences together. Sylvia Moneti, executive director and owner of the Pineville Brain Balance location, said she and her staff developed activities to strengthen the right side of Cannon’s brain, the side typically underdeveloped in autistic children.

“Because the brain is already rapidly developing in children that young, we just push that development,” Moneti said. “Then the two sides of the brain start to integrate.”

The company also plans to open a Huntersville location in late spring. Although Beasley’s project isn’t due until November, she, her mother and Cowles have already been putting their heads together to figure out ways to raise money to send other local children to the center.

“Raising a child with autism is very expensive,” Leslie Cowles said. “Insurance doesn’t cover a lot of treatments and things get tough. I would love to see other families have the same opportunities we have been lucky enough to have.”