Last week was my regular screening with my dermatologist to assess the “sins” of my sun worship in previous years. Fortunately, I passed inspection. During the session, however, it was noted that I work for Yampa Valley Autism Program, and neither the PA nor the assistant knew about the organization. They were genuinely surprised at the number of clients we serve and asked many questions about this lifelong disorder.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and it occurred to me at that moment that I had not been doing my best job in making sure the community understands what our program offers in terms of services and resources. Yes, we have public fundraisers. Yes, we collaborate with other agencies in Steamboat Springs. But maybe there is a need to remind everyone how serious this autism epidemic is and how it has affected so many families in our valley.
This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 1 in 88 children born this year and 1 in 58 boys will receive a diagnosis on the autism spectrum and its related disabilities. This is a 78 percent gain in just 10 years. Steamboat Springs and surrounding communities are no exception. In fact, we demonstrate a higher incidence of occurrence than national statistics.
The first question that comes to mind, of course, is “Why?” Certainly, the diagnostic tools are better, but that does not begin to address the increase in numbers. Steamboat Springs has exceptional physicians who screen children during their wellness checkups. We also are blessed with highly qualified therapists who recognize the red flags and are skilled in a variety of therapies to maximize outcomes.
Autism is a neurological disorder affecting social interaction and communication with others. Many have sensory issues revolving around food, touch and hearing. The disorder also can manifest itself in repetitive behaviors, tantrums and specialized medical issues.
Here are some of the red flags that indicate your child, grandchild or friend may need to be screened. Remember, the presence of these traits doesn’t mean the individual has autism.
■ No big smiles or other warm expressions by 6 months
■ No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expressions by 9 months
■ No babbling by 12 months
■ No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, waving or reaching by 12 months
■ No words by 16 months or two-word phrases by 24 months
■ Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age
■ Asperger’s syndrome ( a form of autism)
■ Difficulty making friends
■ Difficulty with nonverbal social cues
■ No understanding that others may have different feelings or an understanding of how their behavior affects others
■ Obsessive focus on a narrow subject
■ Awkward motor skills
■ Inflexibility with routines
■ Unusual patterns of speech
Although there is no known cause or cure, there is reason for hope. Experts suspect there may be many triggers, such as the environment and genetics. What we do know is early intervention is critical.
We are experiencing great strides in behavioral, speech and occupational and physical therapies. The Yampa Valley Autism Program provides programming with one-on-one and group therapy; financial assistance based on need for costs not covered by insurance; respite hours; and family support in a variety of ways. Our Community Cultivation program is a vocational work-ready program utilizing horticultural tools for our older population. This summer, we will install a solar self-sustaining greenhouse on land donated by the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and funded by the Craig-Scheckman family and others. This will allow us to expand our existing program with more produce and a larger client base.
We are here to help. Don’t hesitate to call our program. We can answer questions and help you find the resources you need.
Lu Etta Loeber
Yampa Valley Autism Program director