Lu Etta Loeber: Autism takes a village

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— April is National Autism Awareness Month. In the six years that the Yampa Valley Autism Program has been providing support services to families affected by this disorder, we have seen the rate of autism spike. While the diagnostic tools are better now than ever before, they alone don’t begin to explain the rise and extent of this life-long disorder. More children now are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than with childhood diabetes or Down syndrome. Autism has become a national epidemic.

One of the significant and positive changes during the past few years is that autism and its related disabilities have received important media attention nationally and here in our community. We are grateful for the media attention, as awareness and early intervention is vital to better outcomes and treatments for those on the spectrum. With more dollars dedicated to research, a cause and cure must — and will — be found soon.

Steamboat Springs is fortunate to have exceptional service providers and therapists who go the distance in providing therapies and programming that address the needs of our children and families. For instance, you will be hearing more about “applied behavior analysis.” This is the most recognized evidence-based treatment for behavioral issues for those identified on the spectrum. In collaboration with Horizons Specialized Services, Yampa Valley Autism Program received a grant to provide scholarship money for individuals to become certified in this therapy. Without a board-certified behavior analyst implementing and supervising this treatment, insurance companies deny coverage. In less than 18 months, we will have at least three of these certified individuals to provide clients with behavioral therapy supported by insurance.

The hours we provide for respite care are the heart of our program. For parents, autism is 24/7. We provide names of trained caregivers that can provide services for as long as 10 hours per month so parents can take a few hours away from home to refresh and renew. They may use this time for something as simple as grocery shopping without any “meltdowns,” or just taking a sibling to a movie, providing a break from the constant care this disorder demands. The fastest growing program continues to be our social cognition, or social thinking, program. Regardless of the severity of the disability, each individual on the spectrum struggles with communication skills, relating to their peers and focusing on tasks. Because of this, many are bullied. The social cognition program addresses each of these needs with individual therapy and group therapy such as Dinner Club, Homework Club and our new Global Warming Club.

We provide family support for a variety of needs. Scholarships for therapy camps, co-pays, emergency funds for dental and medical, and transportation costs to Denver for specialized care are just a few of the supports we offer.

Our star this year will be Community Cultivation’s vocational/horticultural garden program at the Yampa River Botanic Park. It started with six children in 2005, and we now have 30 individuals with disabilities and at-risk youths participating in this program. They start the seeds, plant the vegetables and tend the gardens all summer long. In fall, they harvest and sell their produce at the Mainstreet Farmers Market. They learn many skills in this program — gardening, social interaction, business accounting, and personal presentation, to name a few. Their joy in raising food from tiny seeds is clear; their satisfaction in learning life skills that transition into job possibilities is the goal.

Thanks to the Craig-Scheckman family, by August we will have our own solar dome greenhouse. Many thanks also goes to Rocky Mountain Youth Corps for donating land for this project. The greenhouse will enable the program to run almost year-round.

The phrase “it takes a village” is certainly true in our valley. We all work together along with the medical community to screen and refer kids with “red flags” for autism spectrum disorders to the proper agencies. Early intervention and continued therapy help each individual maximize his or her potential, and the result is that we see better outcomes at home and in school. It takes a lot of resources, time and our community’s involvement to sustain and grow our programs. We’d love to have you join our village. If you don’t already know someone with an autism diagnosis and its related disabilities, chances are you soon will.

Loeber is the director of the Yampa Valley Autism Program. For more information, visit www.yampavalleyautism.org.

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