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Options are myriad for autistic children

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, April 4, 2015 9:00 p.m
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Looking back, the signs were there, though we could not pinpoint a cause.

At age 2, our son, Andrew, had difficulty expressing himself. Two years later, we were told he was not interacting with the other children at preschool.

His diet was limited. Food texture trumped all else amid the effort to try new dishes.

Academic difficulties also surfaced. Andrew did not learn like other kids.

At home he was idiosyncratic — his eyes remained fixed on the television while leaving one room to go to another. He had an aversion to the tag on the back of his shirts.

These behavioral anomalies helped lead to two diagnoses. The first was Attention Deficit Disorder, inattentive subtype. Several years later that was amended to Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

Andrew has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. And he is not alone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 in 68 children are in the autism spectrum, up from 1 in 88 in 2012. The numbers have spiked over time as the definition of autism has evolved and signs of atypical behavior in children are addressed.

Dr. Daisy Christensen, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, says “there is no medical test, no blood test” that reveals a child has an ASD. “It’s a behaviorally defined condition with a wide range of impairments.”

Many in the spectrum do not react to social cues. That aspect of autism is largely misunderstood.

“We go through dozens of social interactions during the day. For the most part they go well,” Christensen says. “We make eye contact and have a strong social sense.

“It makes it hard to understand how people lack that awareness.”

In the years since Andrew’s diagnosis, I have heard otherwise intelligent, reasonable people make disparaging comments about someone with an apparent behavioral problem.

“Must be autistic” is the broad-brush statement. When I have informed them my son is autistic, their embarrassment is palpable. All the while I am calm on the outside but seething within.

Autism used as a pejorative merely underscores ignorance. Given the incidence of autism, increased awareness can help eradicate that.

Parents of children in the spectrum have options. Andrew attended intense speech therapy sessions for 10 years and “graduated” last year. He is articulate with a wry sense of humor.

He no longer attends a brick and mortar school and is making positive strides in cyber school, where he can use his computer skills.

Years of Scouting have played a major role in improving his socialization; karate and archery accentuate discipline.

Andrew will be 16 this year and has made remarkable progress. But some challenges remain. His food choices still are limited. Whether that changes as he reaches adulthood is problematic. And he must work harder than others to remain on task academically because of concentration lapses.

But through it all, he has remained a kind, considerate young man.

When I was growing up, I looked to my parents to set a positive example. As I grow older, I find my son unwittingly is playing the same role.

Kevin Flowers is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kflowers@tribweb.com. April is National Autism Awareness Month.

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