Yampa Valley Medical Center Occupational Therapist Beth Staunton administers observational exams at children's 18- and 24-month wellness screenings. She said detecting an autism spectrum disorder before a child reaches 4 years old can improve the chances of that child being able to handle the challenges of the condition later in life.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Yampa Valley Medical Center Occupational Therapist Beth Staunton administers observational exams at children's 18- and 24-month wellness screenings. She said detecting an autism spectrum disorder before a child reaches 4 years old can improve the chances of that child being able to handle the challenges of the condition later in life.

Acting on autism

Early intervention helps children, families cope with spectrum disorder

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Isaac Waters participates in a Yampa Valley Autism Program activity.

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Ben James, right, and Armando Arceo sit next to each other during a bus ride. Ben and Armando participate in the Yampa Valley Autism Program.

If you go

What: Yampa Valley Autism Program Masquerade Ball

When: 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday

Where: Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel ballroom

Cost: $75 for individuals, $130 for couples, $1,500 for a corporate table; tickets are available at All That Jazz

Call: 870-6257

More information: The Masquerade Ball includes a cocktail hour, dinner, drawings, a live auction and dancing. Jazz music during dinner provided by John Fairlie, Sean Fairlie and Charlie Stoddard; after-dinner dance music provided by the Worried Men.

For more information on the Yampa Valley Autism Program and the services it provides, go to www.yampavalleyau...

Early signs of autism spectrum disorders:

- Lack of warm, joyful expressions

- Lack of response to name

- Limited interest in peer relationships

- Lack of showing gestures

- Repetitive movements or posturing of body, arms, hands or fingers

- Persistant preoccupation with parts of objects

Source: Pediatric Therapy Services, Yampa Valley Medical Center

Focuses of early intervention for autism spectrum disorders and related conditions:

- Starting intervention as soon as a diagnosis is seriously considered

- Intensive intervention, meaning active engagement for 25 hours a week in systematically planned, developmentally appropriate educational activities

- Low student-to-teacher ratio

- Incorporation of a high degree of structure through a predictable routine, visual activity schedules and clear physical boundaries

- Promotion of opportunities for interaction with typically developing peers

Source: Pediatric Therapy Services, Yampa Valley Medical Center; adapted from the American Academy of Pediatrics' "Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders"

— It didn't take Craig resident Michele Dugan long to notice something was different about her youngest son.

"As soon as he was born, I couldn't put him down," Dugan said, explaining that at a young age, her son Tanner cried relentlessly if she left him. She once tried leaving Tanner with her sister for a few hours to go see a movie with her husband, but her youngest son was more attached than children his age normally are.

"A 4-month-old little tiny baby was pushing her away. As soon as I held him, he was fine," Dugan said. "I've always known that there was something different with Tanner. He was a special little guy."

Tanner was diagnosed with autism at 20 months old. After receiving the diagnosis, Dugan started taking her son to Yampa Valley Medical Center's Pediatric Therapy Services program twice a week. The therapy center, a small house with a red roof on Pine Grove Road, offers occupational, physical and speech therapy services. After six months working with the center's specialists, two weeks ago Dugan was able to leave Tanner with another caretaker for the first time.

"For Tanner, we have to go through these other steps to get him to that point," she said. "For example, he couldn't go to his brother's football practices or games, because he didn't understand that he had to stay on the sidelines. So Pediatric Therapy (Services) made us a book, and it showed Tanner to be on the sidelines with his helmet and his ball, and kind of made his problems into a social story that may help him through that situation."

Benefits of early detection

Detecting an autism spectrum disorder early - before a child reaches 4 years old - can significantly improve the chances of that child being able to handle the challenges of the condition later in life, said Beth Staunton, an occupational therapist with Pediatric Therapy Services and program coordinator for the Yampa Valley Autism Program.

"If somebody missed out on early intervention, it doesn't mean they can't benefit. It's just that the outcomes are much better if the intervention starts under the age of 4," Staunton said.

Autism, as defined by the Autism Society of America, is a developmental disability that affects normal functioning of the brain and can impact development of social interaction and communication skills. It's a wide-ranging spectrum disorder, and for young children, it might be displayed by an absence of back-and-forth gestures or an absence of words. Detection of autism has been on the rise in recent years, with the Autism Society reporting diagnosis in 1 of 150 children and 1 of 94 boys.

By administering observational exams at a child's 18- and 24-month wellness screenings, it's possible to pick up on signs of an autism spectrum disorder early, Staunton said. Early diagnosis leads to early intervention, which can help teach a child with autism some of the social or communicative skills that don't come naturally.

Dr. Rosanne Iversen, a family practice physician, said much of that intervention focuses on bridging a child's disconnect between the left and right sides of the brain.

"They have problems with social skills because they don't have eye contact. You have to teach them what that facial expression means," Iversen said. "You have to teach them, when somebody does this, they're angry; when somebody does this, they're happy; when somebody turns away from you, they're tired of hearing you talk."

Lisa Lorenz, a board member with the Yampa Valley Autism Program, said early intervention was key for her son, Sawyer, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was 3 years old. Children with Asperger's syndrome typically are identified as high-functioning, but they might have trouble picking up on nonverbal cues, be inflexible in routines or have difficulty in social situations.

"It's absolutely critical, the early intervention. Having therapies and different types of techniques makes all the difference in the world," Lorenz said, adding that it would be hard to tell that her son, who now is 15, has an autism spectrum disorder. In the 12 years since his diagnosis, Sawyer has done speech therapy and has worked to learn social cues that are not innate to him.

"Every kid that's on the autistic spectrum is completely unique, and he happens to be very high-functioning," Lorenz said of her son. "But I attribute some of his high-functioning factors to some of the early intervention he received."

Intervention, then and now

As diagnosis and awareness of autism spectrum disorders has gone up, so have the services available in Routt County and the rest of Northwest Colorado. Part of that support comes from the Yampa Valley Autism Program, a grassroots organization started by a group of parents that provides family support services and educational resources related to autism.

The organization hosts its first Masquerade Ball fundraiser from 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday, in an effort to sustain its family respite programs, treatment support services and public awareness efforts. In addition to focusing on improving quality of life for families of children with autism, the program seeks to defray some of the out-of-pocket costs for speech, occupational and physical therapies, said Lu Etta Loeber, executive director for the Yampa Valley Autism Program.

Janna Marxuach, a founding member of the autism program, has a 12-year-old son, Grayson Steur, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome about seven years ago. She said that with appropriate early intervention, a child with autism can greatly increase their productivity and independence going into adulthood. Marxuach doesn't believe her son received much intervention - his diagnosis didn't come until he was almost 5 years old - but she does believe its benefits are great.

"What can be a problem at 2 and 3 years old can be greatly reduced by the time they enter school," Marxuach said of intervention therapies, which can take day-to-day activities and break them down into smaller, highly structured components.

Marxuach and Staunton said it's important to note the advances in intervention for autism spectrum disorders in the years since Grayson was diagnosed. Staunton said autism still can go undiagnosed, and it's vital for parents to have their children screened at an early age and to look for and act on any unusual signs.

"I think that goes on a lot, where a teacher or a parent will have a concern and no one really wants to say, 'Your kid has autism.' And that can go on for years," Staunton said. "It's sort of a devastating diagnosis, and no one wants to be the one to say that to a parent. But if there is any kind of concern, the child should be screened."

An autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong condition, and there is no cure for it. But there is treatment - treatment that is much more effective if it starts at an early age, Staunton said.

"We want people to know that it's very different now," she said of coping with autism today, compared to 15 years ago. "Really, for some of these kids that are getting early intervention, the outlook is great for them."

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