FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When Makayla Rast was 4, her parents began noticing that she was "different." She preferred to be alone, and she didn't get along with her siblings. By the time she reached the first grade, she was having problems reading; the next year, Makayla was placed in special education classes at her school.

It wasn't until she was 9 that she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

"(Learning that Makayla had Asperger syndrome) was devastating to me," said her mother, Dawn Desmond-Rast. "At first, I didn't know what to do. I began reading about autism when Makayla began testing, and I obsessed with gathering all the information I could after her diagnosis."

That is when the Rast Family turned to Fort Drum's Exceptional Family Member Program, located in Army Community Service, to find information and support.

"They have been wonderful providing me with books, information on doctors and just listening," Desmond-Rast said.

April is Autism Awareness Month, and representatives from EFMP are busy trying to get the word out and encouraging the community to learn more about autism.

One in 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The term "autism" has a broad definition to describe individuals with developmental disability that affects their verbal and nonverbal communication and social interactions, according to Sharon Chaple, EFMP manager.

Signs that a child might have autism are often noticed early when babies and toddlers fail to begin communicating with their parents and caregivers, said Michelle Wojcikowski, EFMP system navigator.

"Unless your child has autism, you don't really do a lot of research about it; it takes you by surprise," she said. "You have the baby and imagine everything that will be perfect in his (or her) life, and as early as 6 months, you can get hit with the hard news that your child is exhibiting signs of autism. It's very scary."

According to Autism Speaks, the most obvious signs of autism tend to become evident by age 2 and 3; those signs include intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues, such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbance.

If parents notice their child isn't developing or if they think something might be wrong, Chaple recommends they take the child to a pediatrician for testing.

"Early intervention is the key," she said. "Find out if there is something wrong. If it's nothing or your child is just slower to develop, that's a big relief."

Wojcikowski agreed, adding that if children are diagnosed early, parents and doctors can begin helping the child before he or she reaches school age.

"Once (children get) to school, they may already be behind (their peers developmentally)," she said. "By that time, the other children have already developed social skills and can follow directions, whereas a child with autism may have a hard time with (following multiple instructions)."

There also are many levels of autism, Wojcikowski added.

"Some conditions you can receive treatment for and, while you aren't cured, you learn to cope with it and function so it doesn't affect your daily life," she noted, adding that there have been many great people who were autistic who have grown up to do great things.

While there wasn't a name for autism until the 1940s, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Hans Christian Anderson are just a few well-known people who are believed to have been autistic.

"It shows that people with autism can be just as productive in the world as everyone else," Chaple said. "Every day you learn something new about this condition."

People with autism often face other health and life challenges, such as diet sensitivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and more, according to Sue Walling, EFMP system navigator. Food allergies and intolerances can aggravate autism symptoms. Certain foods made with grains, gluten, dairy and food dyes can trigger allergic reactions and behaviors like hyperactivity and temper tantrums.

Support services

EFMP offers several support groups for parents and children, Walling said. Parents can communicate with other Family Members and network, while children can socialize with other children.
What's nice about the playgroup is we understand children with autism," she said. "They can run around and be themselves."

Wojcikowski added that the playgroups allow parents to observe their children in social settings.

"Both parents and children learn at the playgroups," she noted.

Walling said one of EFMP's successes stems from connecting experienced parents of children with autism to those just learning of their child's diagnosis.

Chaple agreed.

"We have some very knowledgeable parents (with children enrolled in EFMP) who have researched and found out what's best for their autistic children," she said. "They have been proactive in providing what they can do to help their children."

While the news of Makayla's condition was devastating initially, Desmond-Rast said parents facing a new diagnosis should know that "it is not the end of the world." Makayla is continuing with special education classes at school and is active in EFMP.

"She participates in every activity in the Exceptional Family Member Program," Desmond-Rast said. "The program really helps her, because she is around other kids with similar conditions. I definitely suggest (parents of Family Members with autism) go and get their child enrolled in the EFMP."

Military Families have an added challenge when they are forced to move around every few years, Wojcikowski explained.

"They have to move around with this and their child loses their predictability every three years," she said. "They get a new service provider and a new school. It puts an extra strain on Families."

Services provided at Fort Drum may not be available or might differ at other installations, Chaple said.

"It can be a big strain on a child with autism," she noted. "They lose all the people they've come to know and trust and are comfortable with other than their parents. Some children don't adapt very well. Everybody says change is good, but change to a child with autism is not."

That is why EFMP staff members encourage Families to get involved and bring their children to the different support groups and activities provided.

EFMP's support groups and services include the following:
* Exceptional Parent / Exceptional Child support group meets every second Tuesday of the month. Topics vary on different disabilities, education and special needs.
* Autism Support Group, held every third Friday of the month, provides information on applied behavioral analysis services, care, nutrition and other services in the community.
* EFMP Playgroup meets the first and third Wednesday of each month from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the old Youth Services gym, Bldg. P-10790. The group is open to children 6 months to 5 years old.
* Respite care is available to Families enrolled in EFMP who qualify for care. The number of child care hours will vary on a case-by-case basis.

EFMP also will host an autism awareness luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 17 at ACS. The event is open to the Fort Drum community. For more information about the program or to make a reservation, call Allen Ricks, EFMP program technician, at 772-0819.