Awareness, understanding brings autistic children, families together
April 21, 2009
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - Leslie and Todd Bair's son, 9-year-old Christian, is autistic.
Before he was diagnosed, many told Leslie Bair that he was misbehaving all the time.
Bair, after being told Christian suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and after medication hadn't alleviated his symptoms, said she "didn't know how to connect with Christian" and there were never "good days."
After visiting a specialist, Christian was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder on the Autistic Spectrum - or high functioning autism.
Bair admitted it was a very scary discovery, but at least she had an answer. The diagnosis allowed Bair to learn and research so much on autism that she said, "I can enjoy my son now."
Christian now attends special classes at Netzaberg Elementary School, including 60 minutes of speech, 30 minutes of small motor skills, and 30 minutes of reading help a week including developing social skills.
"Once we got the Autism diagnosis ... there were so many helpful things because it's not changing him, its changing mom," Bair said, "It has made me readjust my attitude and now Christian and I can spend time together without frustration.
"It has also helped others to see Christian as special and not bad. It is a blessing to know that he just needs extra love and attention and understanding ... now he is doing outstanding."
Like Bair, thousands of moms and dads have to make that adjustment every year. According the Center for Disease Control, autism affects one in 150 children in the U.S.
This makes it more common than childhood cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. It is usually diagnosed by three years of age. The disorder is called Autism Spectrum Disorder, which refers to the varying severities of autism an individual may exhibit.
Autism Specialist, Martin Sands, Bavarian School District, stressed while discussing the differences between a typically developing person and an autistic person, that "(autism) is not a bad thing, it's a different thing."
Sands added that while in the past there was a certain stigma aligned with autism, people are becoming more educated to the differences between typical people and autistic people.
"The biggest misconception may be that an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis is synonymous with mental retardation or a lower cognitive ability," Sands said.
This is simply not true. In fact, often these individuals have typical if not elevated intellects.
From a numerical perspective, said Sands, "autistic people are much more like non-autistic people than they are different from them."
Individuals with autism are physically indistinguishable from others and they have the same wants, needs, and feelings. They may, however, express these wants and needs differently than a typically developing person.
Autism affects a person's ability to communicate. An autistic child may point to what they want instead of using words to indicate their needs. Their reaction to questions or conversation may be delayed and when they speak to someone they may not make eye contact.
Autism also affects a person's ability to socialize. An autistic child will not share joint attention. When a parent points to something with excitement, a typical child will look at the object and the parent. A child with autism will not. Also, an autistic child will not engage in imaginary play.
An autistic person's brain is wired differently, but because behavior is learned, "it's all teachable," Sands explained. "The most important fact I want people to understand is that autism is not a 'bad' or negative thing, but rather a 'different' thing. They can learn, thrive and be successful, but getting there is going to be different than someone that develops 'typically.'"
Sands manages a parent support group for parents of autistic children at the Vilseck Army Community Service. "I (am) happy to help any way I can and answer questions," Sands said.
There are many other resources for parents in the community. The Exceptional Family Member Program highlighted April as Autism Awareness Month, hoping to raise awareness about the Autism Spectrum Disorder.
For children up to 3 years of age, there are Educational Developmental and Intervention Services in Vilseck. EDIS has occupational therapists, a physical therapist, speech pathologists and educators who work with families.
For children older than 3 years old, the Pre-School Services for Children with Disabilities Program is available at the Netzaberg and Vilseck Elementary Schools.
The behavioral health clinics in Grafenwoehr and Vilseck assist in assessing a child to provide diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Extended Care Health Option Program is available to most families with an autistic dependent.
Melissa Wolff, Bavarian News assistant editor, contributed to this article.