Parents pull together to deal with autistic children
Elizabeth Reed wanted her son, Austin, to look her in the eyes but he wouldn’t. She couldn’t figure out why.
“I remember thinking ‘When is he going to be my friend?'” Reed said. “There wasn’t that eye gaze back and forth.”
Austin was diagnosed at the age of 3 with autism, a developmental disorder that affects how people communicate and relate to other people. Effects of the disorder typically last a lifetime and can create emotional turmoil for a family.
That’s why Reed, 30, is starting a support group for parents affected by autism. She will host her first meeting on Tuesday at the South Lake Tahoe branch of the El Dorado County Library from 6 to 8 p.m. Children are welcome.
“I just want to empower parents,” said Reed, who has seen remarkable behavioral improvement in her 6-year-old because of intensive therapy. “What really motivates people is hearing success stories.”
The support group is meant to become a resource for parents so they can find the help their children need to control their behavior. Reed recently moved from Monterey County with her husband, a South Lake Tahoe firefighter, her daughter, Ashley, 4, and Austin.
When Reed discovered it was autism that Austin was dealing with, she went into a “dying for information” mode. She found it in support groups like the one she’s forming and by searching the Internet.
“If somebody gives you the information up front, it saves months and months of trying to find it,” Reed said. “There is a lot of stuff out there, some of which may or may not work.”
Reed said she tried vitamins and other supplements without success. It was therapy, more than 30 hours a week at first, that allowed Austin to focus and improve his behavior in social situations.
Such therapy is available at no charge from the state and school districts if a child is diagnosed with the disorder. Individual education plans are tailored for each child.
“There is not a boilerplate for every kid,” said Marie Meagher, director of special services for Lake Tahoe Unified School District. “One kid can be supported in a regular class, others need to be in a smaller environment.”
A report put together by the district for the state determined that four of 770 children enrolled in the district’s special education program had been diagnosed with autism. Meagher said more students exist who have not been diagnosed. A special education official with the Douglas County School District was unavailable for comment.
Without a doubt, autism is on the rise and dramatically so in California, affecting more than 21,000 residents. The Department of Developmental Services reported a 100 percent rise in its caseload since 1999. The Department of Health Services reported that of the children born between 1989 and 1994, more than 4,300 of 3.5 million were diagnosed with “full syndrome of autism.”
The cause of autism has not been determined, but the state is financing a large research project at UC Davis called the M.I.N.D. Institute in an attempt to find the answer.
Meagher said it is a greater challenge to provide services for students with special needs in rural communities such as South Lake Tahoe, but the job does get done through cooperation between agencies.
The Alta California Regional Center, established in 1969, provides therapy at no charge for people of all ages who are developmentally disabled. Alta has an office in South Lake Tahoe off Highway 50 in the Star Lake Building.
“We’re trying to help with things in the home — we don’t do things that are purely educational,” said Cindy Archer, a service coordinator for Alta based at South Lake Tahoe. “That’s always a fine line to divide everything up. But we try to work together with the school district.”
Archer recommends that people who think they have a child with autism in their family consult a pediatrician first. But the regional center does provide psychologists who diagnose autism and other disorders. Experts agree early diagnosis of the disorder means a better chance of a normal life for a child.
Kim Holly, 42, of Placerville, has a 19-year-old daughter diagnosed with a pervasive development disorder, a medical term used to describe a form of autism. At first, her daughter, Christina, would only allow her mother to touch her. And when she spoke, she usually screamed.
Years of therapy through Alta and hundreds of hours of Holly’s time teaching her child how to identify emotions has allowed Christina to lead a relatively normal life. She recently graduated from high school and works at a video store.
“My daughter has residual characteristics,” Holly said. “But the real intense symptoms aren’t there anymore. She wants to get married one day and live on her own. That might be a possibility for her.”
Help is out there. If a child is younger than 3-years-old, call the Alta California Regional Center at (530) 542-0442. If he or she is older than 3, call the center at (916) 978-6400.
Or to learn about autism and how to approach it, call Sacramento’s WARMLINE at 800-660-7995. Parents Helping Parents, a support group similar to the one Reed is starting up, can be found on the Web at http://www.php.com.
— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org