Fitting together | SteamboatToday.com

Fitting together

Autism group fills a niche in the community

Susan Cunningham

From the time he was a young boy, Beau Vogel, 17, identified with movies such as “E.T.,” “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

He liked those movies, his parents said, because the storylines involved characters from one world who found themselves in another and struggled to help others understand the world they came from.

Beau Vogel is autistic.

Autism affects how a person’s brain develops, affecting their social, communication and sensory skills.

Vogel’s parents knew from the time he was a few years old that there was something different about him. They brought him to specialists, but it wasn’t until he entered the second grade that his parents learned he was autistic, said his mother, Kim Vogel.

The diagnosis brought more questions than answers, and the emotional and financial stresses were overwhelming, she said.

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Now, almost a decade later, Routt County parents of autistic children do not have to go through those hurdles alone: The Yampa Valley Autism Program offers help.

Though the program is only about a year old, it has made strides and fostered a momentum that will grow, Kim Vogel said.

“We can all lament the past, and I certainly wish we had something like this when Beau was young,” she said. “But we didn’t, and now we do.

“When we do this for people with autism or any other sort of disorder, then we make it a better place for everyone.”

The birth of a group

Autism spectrum disorders affect people in various ways; most are far from Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic man in the movie “Rainman.”

The stereotype of people who are autistic is that “they’re all mentally disabled or they’re all very smart, and neither is true,” said Janna Marxuach-Steur, president of the Yampa Valley Autism Program.

Autism can heighten or dull senses, make filtering out noises and actions difficult, and make communication challenging, among other effects.

But there are some constants, such as the fact that autism is on the rise around the world. One in every 250 children in the nation is affected, and no place is immune, according to recent estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also constant is that the needs of families raising children with autism are many and complex.

The earlier children are diagnosed with autism and get help, the better. Early intervention means children are more likely to grow into productive adults and can reduce the cost of lifetime treatment by two-thirds, Marxuach-Steur said.

Marxuach-Steur is the mother of 7-year-old Grayson Steur, who was diagnosed with a milder form of autism when he was 3.

Grayson quickly can list the Latin names of dinosaurs and insects, has identified more species of grasshoppers in the area than the extension office knew existed and poetically will call frosted trees on a blue morning “ice coral.”

But he can’t explain that he’s unhappy because he’s hungry.

When Grayson was diagnosed, Marxuach-Steur searched for help.

“It just seemed like I had nowhere to turn,” she said. “There were all these different agencies here, and they were all doing a lot of good, but my son fell through the cracks.”

Marxuach-Steur met other parents in the area, and together, they started a family support group. Then a year ago, they started the Yampa Valley Autism Program under the nonprofit umbrella of Steamboat Mental Health.

Since then, they have held educational clinics for physicians and residents, are creating a packet of resources for parents, and have purchased resources for families and children, such as software that teaches children facial expressions. There is a small fund for families who need help with therapy and other costs. One goal is to start regular one-on-one home programs.

Through educating the public, doctors and school workers, and by creating links among the groups, autistic children will get better opportunities.

Eventually, Marxuach-Steur envisions an autism center for Northwest Colorado.

“It started off because it was my child, and I saw his potential, but I also saw the extraordinary difficulties he was having,” Marxuach-Steur said. “But I became very passionate about all the children here. … I wanted to see all these kids be the best they could be.”

Filling a need

Most of the county’s human service workers are generalists because of the range in ways they must help people, said Routt County Human Services Director Bob White. It is nearly impossible for them to stay on top of a highly specialized need such as the treatment of autism.

The Yampa Valley Autism Program has been providing valuable resources for an important, growing need, he said.

Steamboat Mental Health Program Director Tom Gangel said YVAP has plenty of momentum.

The group has brought in experts and provided information and funds for children who need treatment, Gangel said. Many officials refer people with questions about autism to the YVAP. But, there is much more to do for area children with autism disorders, he said.

Personal experiences

Babette Dickson’s son, James, was diagnosed with autism at age 3.

Dickson knew very little about autism and found she did not even know where to go to learn. Now, with YVAP, there is a place to go.

“If I had known a group at the time when I was in this situation … it would have lifted a huge amount of stress and emotion,” Dickson said.

Cindy Turner is the mother of 19-year-old Jeffrey Turner, who was diagnosed with autism at age 14. Jeffrey helps bag groceries at Safeway when he’s not at school.

The program has helped the family connect with experts on the disorder and to get a behavioral management plan in place, Cindy Turner said.

It has provided not just emotional support, but also valuable information on the latest findings and breakthroughs in treatment, she said.

YVAP has been equally important to Camille Sachtleben. Her 3-year-old son has not been diagnosed with autism, but is going through the diagnosis process. The Sachtlebens moved to the area in November, met Marxuach-Steur and were introduced to the program.

“I am very, very grateful that this program was in place so I was able to have someone lead me along,” Sachtleben said. “It’s been nice to have somebody here who understands the struggle.”

It may turn out that Sachtleben’s son is a just a 3-year-old who “doesn’t always play by others’ rules,” but going through the diagnosis process to be certain is important, she said.

The fund-raiser

YVAP is holding its third fund-raiser this month. The first two were held jointly with Steamboat Mental Health and Horizons.

This year’s fund-raiser is called “Puzzles,” referring to the international symbol for autism.

Children with autism are like puzzles: Each is different, each is complicated and their various pieces have to be figured out and put together, Marxuach-Steur said.

It’s puzzling to parents when their children can read when they are not yet 2 years old, or can recite countless facts about animals but cannot play well with others, she said.

Pieces of the puzzle are available for $5 at Horizons Specialized Services or Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. When someone buys a piece, his or her name will be entered into a raffle for more than 30 prizes, including season ski passes, dinners, gym memberships and massages.

The money goes toward the group, which helps families understand their children’s weaknesses so they can help develop their children’s “wonderful strengths,” Dickson said.

The goal is for all of the children to be happy, productive members of society.

“The motivation … is the children, of course,” Dickson said. “It’s a beautiful project. It’s a beautiful thing to build together.”

— To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com