By Michelle Butzgy, ParaglideMarch 3, 2009
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Imagine being unable to communicate to others. You're bombarded constantly by all the different senses. You feel blocked in by a barrier that keeps you inside while the whole world rushes in at the same time you try to make sense of it all. The barrier's name' Autism.
Autism affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others, usually starting within the first three years of a child's life. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. "I usually felt like I was in my own little world and was often oblivious as to what was going on around me," said David Hamrick, a high-functioning autistic who speaks at conferences and workshops around the country.
As many as one in 150 children can develop the disorder. Autism affects not only the child, it affects the Family as well. When out in public, other people don't understand their temper tantrums or other behavior. Often Families may feel alone in their pain and frustration. They aren't alone.
My Family has been affected by autism. My nephews, Jake, 9 and Tommy, 7, both have the disorder. My brother, Christopher Butzgy, described a "typical" day for them:
"I usually sing to them to wake them up. They can be very lethargic in the morning. If there is an exciting event happening that day such as a field trip, then if I mention that, they bound out of bed.
Then it's time to get them dressed. Some days Jake picks his own clothes and gets himself dressed. Other days I have to help him with all of his clothes. Generally I always help Tommy get dressed.
Then it's to the table for medication and breakfast. Breakfast may be cereal, oatmeal, or "cheesy" sandwiches. After breakfast I brush their teeth and we watch videos until it's time to go to the school bus. I hold both of their hands on the way to the bus stop. Jake usually begins yelling if he sees a car approaching. I let him know that he is safe. The next minute, Jake may try to run out in the street. There is no telling what he will do moment to moment. As we pass vehicles, Jake and Tommy both announce what kind of vehicle it is ... Toyota, Honda, and Jeep. Tommy is especially excited if he sees a vehicle with a spare tire on the back.
Upon arriving at the bus stop, Tommy begins looking at the tires of any nearby vehicle. Jake runs to look at a plant that has thorns and announces to everyone at the bus stop that it is prickly and that it is can make people bleed. Then he commences to run around. Once the bus arrives Jake gives me a kiss and gets on, Tommy tries to look at the tires of the bus.
When I pick the boys up at aftercare at around 5:30, Jake screams "Daddy!" and barrels into me, happy to see me. Tommy may or may not acknowledge me but will eventually smile at me. When we get home, they eat dinner. Tommy starts looking at pictures of cars and starts flapping his arms as he gets very into the pictures. Jake runs around the house or may sit down in front of the TV to watch a movie until bedtime. At bedtime, once again I will brush their teeth and read a story to them. On the weekends, it's a lot of the same, but we ride on the train."
When Jake and Tommy are in school in their hometown in Virginia, they go to a special education class or attend regular classes with a paraprofessional to help them. Their school system works out an individualized education program for the two children. Jake and Tommy may also get physical, speech and occupational therapy according to Butzgy.
Like Jake and Tommy in Virginia, Fort Bragg and the Fayetteville area have many resources for autistic children and their parents. The Army Community Service's Exceptional Family Members Program is planning an Autism Awareness seminar March 2 and 3 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Reserve Center. Scheduled speakers include Rita Pike from the Fort Bragg Schools, Autism Society of Cumberland County, Sandi Johnson from Tricare ECHO and more. Speakers represent community agencies that can provide much needed resources for Families in the Fort Bragg area.
Booths at the seminar will have information about Specialized Training of Military Parents, Child INC., Family Support Network Sandhills, Special Olympics, Needs Speech Inc. and many other programs.
"The reason we chose to conduct an Autism Awareness Seminar is because we have seen the population of children diagnosed with autism increase in our community," said Rachel Kiwaha, EFMP specialist. "Many of the calls we receive are from parents who are new to the area who are looking for resources about autism," she said.
Kihawa's son, Jared, 13, is autistic and enrolled in EFMP. "We feel that it has been beneficial for him and our Family," said Kihawa. "There are programs like the EFMP Summer Camp that he is able to attend. Summer camp provides experiences that are exciting, fun, and empowering while providing a safe environment."
Events and programs provided by the EFMP allow Jared and other children with special needs to interact with peers in an environment other than school.
Families don't need to be alone with all the different challenges an autistic loved one brings. "Activities for special needs children can be hard to find and he has grown to enjoy and count on the special activities that the EFMP provides," said Kihawa. "As a Family, the program that benefits us all is Respite Care. Respite Care allows us to take a break when life with an autistic child can become overwhelming," she said.
EFMP is a mandatory enrollment program, based on carefully defined rules. EFMP works with other military and civilian agencies to provide comprehensive and coordinated medical, educational, housing, community support and personnel services to Families with special needs. EFMP enrollment works to ensure that needed services are available at the receiving command before the assignment is made.
An Exceptional Family Member is a dependent, regardless of age, who requires medical services for a chronic condition; receives ongoing services from a specialist, has mental health concerns/social problems/psychological needs, receives education services provided in an Individual Education Program, or a Family member receiving services provided inn an Individual Family Services Plan. EFMP is located on the third floor at the Soldier Support Center on Normandy Drive. To reach EFMP, call 907-3395.