For some, the image of autism begins and ends with Dustin Hoffman glancing at cards strewn across the back of a convertible in the desert and knowing exactly what's left in the deck.

The scene from the 1988 movie "Rain Man" is memorable to say the least. But those who experience autism on a daily basis know the limits to this view, and are working to spread awareness of the realities of the condition, particularly during Autism Awareness Month in April.
"(Hoffman's) performance was great, and it should be applauded, but it was just that - a performance," said Cheryl Beene, who founded an autism support group for families at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities affecting an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Though ASDs range from mild to severe and impact different people different ways, common symptoms include difficulties with social interaction and communication as well as behavioral challenges.

It's a subject Beene is well-acquainted with. She worked in early intervention programs for children with autism for more than 20 years. Then, her youngest son, now nine, was diagnosed with autism himself.

"I have a whole new appreciation for all the families I've worked with over the years," she said.
Married to a retired Lieutenant Colonel and having five kids, Beene knows all about the challenges of life in the military with a special needs child. In order to help others, she started a support group four years ago.

Since then it has grown tremendously. It helps families adjust to recent diagnoses, share experiences and obtain up to date information on autism resources.

"We try really hard to stay current on what's available resource-wise," Been said.

Another primary goal of the group is to reduce the stigma of autism. The hope is that making people aware of autism will make them more understanding.

There's a lot of misinformation regarding autism out there, according to Beene. One thing that few people realize is that the disorders can encompass a lot of other factors. Many with autism also have eating disorders and other health problems associated with their condition.

In fact, the lifetime cost of caring for a person with autism is an estimated $3.2 million, according to the CDC.

"Autism isn't like a one-size fits all thing, it varies widely from individual to individual," Beene said.
Families are often overwhelmed by all of these factors. That's where the group comes in to play.

It's helped Rose Terlage, whose 3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism at 22 months.

"It was very, very upsetting," Terlage said of hearing the news.

Like many families, she wasn't sure where to go or what to do next, but an early intervention program at Fort Benning, Ga., helped guide her. When she arrived at JBLM in September she got involved with the support group here, which allowed her to meet families in similar situations.

"A lot of the parents there have older kids, so they've been through it," Terlage said.

The good news is that starting early can help alleviate some of the symptoms of autism. Beene's son went from not speaking or making eye contact to being a part of a normal third grade classroom.

When asked if her son has changed her life, Beene's answer is simple.

"Oh, tremendously," she said. "But I wouldn't trade it."

Page last updated Thu April 14th, 2011 at 12:27