Raising a child is demanding enough for most parents. Often exhausted and frustrated, parents of autistic children are faced with a different set of challenges each day. The key to understanding autism is learning how to live with the disorder so the child and family can benefit from all that life has to offer.
Babette Dickson, a Steamboat Springs parent, prefers to use the word "different," not "disabled," when talking about her 8-year-old son, James.
James was diagnosed at the age of three with Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD), a mild form of autism.
"James dissects things and memorizes them; he takes a visual scan," Dickson said.
For instance, James not only knows the route from Steamboat Springs to California, he has it memorized. When he and his mother make their annual trip, "James will tell me if I've missed an exit," Dickson said.
Autism is a complex disorder that affects the brain differently in each individual. All autistic people have similarities and differences. Characteristics vary depending on the severity of the disorder. Doctors apply the term "autism spectrum disorder" when describing mild to severe symptoms. The most common types are Asperger's, PDD and classic autism. Each has its own set of behaviors.
One common characteristic is the autistic individual's "insistence on sameness." Many children are extremely dependent on routines. If one is changed, even slightly, the child may become very upset.
Some typical routines are drinking and/or eating the same food items at every meal, wearing certain clothing or insisting that others wear the same clothes, and going to school using the same route.
Autism is known as a developmental disability because it starts before the age of 3, when children are in their developmental period.
Dickson thinks it is an advantage to have an early diagnosis. She was notified very early in James' development.
"He was struggling with his attention span and language skills at school," Dickson said. After an evaluation and series of tests, James was diagnosed with PDD.
Although scientists know autism is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function, they have not yet identified a single trigger.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 250 babies born in the United States today will develop some form of autism. An estimated 1.5 million Americans have autism and another 15 million family members, health care professionals and educators are directly affected by the disease. CDC statistics show that boys are three to four times more likely than girls to be affected by autism.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lists these five behaviors of infants and toddlers that signal further evaluation.
Does not babble or coo by 12 months
Does not point, wave and grasp by 12 months
Does not say single words by 16 months
Does not say two-word phrases by 24 months
Loses of any language or social skill at any age
When autism is diagnosed, it is important that parents and professionals work together to benefit the child. Professionals use their experience and training to recommend treatment, and parents have unique knowledge about the child's needs and abilities.
"We have wonderful resources in our community for children with autism," Dickson said. "James especially loves going to visit the horses at Humble Ranch."
Unique in Northwest Colorado, the Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center stimulates children's cognitive, emotional and physical motor skills through the use of horses.
Every person with autism is an individual with a unique personality and combination of traits. Many autistic children respond to their environment in positive as well as negative ways and can learn to see the world as an interesting, loving place.
The first step is recognizing the challenge.
"You have to accept it," Dickson said. "Raising a child with autism takes extra energy and attention from everyone involved."
Mindy Fontaine is public relations coordinator at Yampa Valley Medical Center.