Dayna Hoff has a master’s in business administration and is a former pharmaceutical sales representative who worked with neurologists and neuroscientists in San Diego and elsewhere. Her husband, Todd, is a health care executive.

In 2000, their son Garrett was born. He was a bright, happy baby who brought joy to his family, but in the months that followed, certain behaviors became troubling. Dayna and Todd were connected to the world of health care in Southern California, and Dana spent the next nine months and a huge amount of personal resources with doctors between San Diego and Los Angeles trying to diagnose the problems.

In frustration, she confided in a professional associate, Dr. Doris Trauner, a highly regarded pediatric neurologist in San Diego. Trauner invited Garrett for a play date in her office. After two hours of play, Dayna’s nightmare of uncertainty ended. Her son was diagnosed with what we call today autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

The Mayo Clinic defines autism as a disorder related to brain development that affects how a person perceives and socializes with others. A wide range of symptoms and severity are associated with the disorder exist.

“It is a disorder of the senses,” Dayna says, “and we need to determine what motivates each and every child so we can help them be the best they can be.”

She knew they were fortunate to have the resources and connections to get to the bottom of Garrett’s issues, but they worried about the families not as fortunate. Out of concern for “those who are next,” the couple decided to work with other families seeking answers to the vexing questions around their child’s development.

Soon Dayna quit her job, and the Hoffs started the Autism Tree Project Foundation to spare other parents from the torment of the unknown. At first, the foundation focused on access to information and diagnosis, but as Garrett grew, so did their frustration with the systems and institutions they trusted for support.

Today, the foundation is a community of compassion for parents and families with special needs due to autism spectrum disorder. The foundation’s mission is defined by the acronym of C.A.R.E.S: Community Awareness, Advocacy, Research and Early Intervention.

With two full-time staff members, Dayna remains the volunteer CEO of the organization that serves more than 2,000 families a year.

The foundation offers 20 no-cost programs, many in the cozy home setting of Autism Tree’s Point Loma office. The programs focus on sports, nutrition, STEM, play time, teens and support just for boys and some just for girls. All the programs are designed to improve the lives of individuals and families dealing with autism. “Autism affects the entire family, not only the person with the diagnosis,” Dayna says.

Beyond its programs of support, Autism Tree also focuses on early detection. It’s all about the brain and the cognitive improvements that can be made in the first seven years of a diagnosed child’s life, Dayna says. That is why Autism Tree has tested more than 20,000 preschoolers in San Diego County to date and has trained moe than 2,000 college students to aid in the assessments.

Dayna Hoff has a dream to create a one-stop facility for families whose children suffer from neurological disorders, a place where all the professional services are available to help a family under one roof. She says it needs to be well-known so never again will a family suffer the pain and struggle of the unknown as the Hoffs endured 20 years ago.

How’s Garrett doing? Today, he’s thriving as an undergraduate at George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

About this series

Bob Morris is a member of the U-T Community Advisory Board. Someone San Diego Should Know is a weekly column about local people who are interesting and noteworthy because of their experiences, achievements, creativity or credentials.