By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Talking with others who work to provide services for children with autism, Tamera Buchanan has noticed the same needs across the state.
Those include more behavior, speech and language therapists to guide children with the neurological disorder that impedes communication and social skills. Another involves providing supervised housing and respite care for families ¬ó trained staff to supervise autistic children and give parents free time.
"To do normal things, like have friends and go grocery shopping," said Buchanan, the mother of a 12-year-old boy with autism and a member of the board of directors for the nonprofit Redwood Coast Regional Center that serves disabled people.
But the biggest need lies in including autistic children in all parts of life ¬ó school classes, games, jobs and other activities.
"We, as a society, need to have a greater understanding of human diversity," Buchanan said. "It's about increasing the acceptance."
Such efforts may require staff to guide autistic children during classes or pictures and audio aids to boost their communication abilities during activities.
"Inclusion in school and community is essential because life is not separate and separate is not equal," Buchanan said. "We all have to get along on the planet."
Rising autism cases?
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week finds that about 1 in 150 children in the U.S. suffer from the disorder, more than previously expected. Earlier estimates set the number at about one in 500 and for decades before that, estimated about five in 10,000.
The latest report comes from reviews of eight-year-olds in 14 states.
"Our estimates are becoming better and more consistent, though we can't yet tell if there is a true increase in (autism disorders) or if the changes are the result of our better studies," said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. "We do know, however, that these disorders are affecting too many children."
Questions linger over whether the actual number of cases has increased or if researchers have grown more adept at diagnosing those with the disorder.
"That is a major point of debate," said Clay Jones, interim executive director of Redwood Coast Regional Center, one of 21 private, nonprofit centers in California that serve people with disabilities. "It may be both, but what percentage each of those factors figures isn't exactly clear."
Del Norte County has at least 13 people with autism, probably more who either have not been diagnosed or have not signed up for resources through the center, Jones said.
Whether more people are suffering from the disorder than in the past remains unknown, agreed Dr. Robert Soper, chief psychiatrist with the mental health branch of the county's department of health and human services.
"Clearly, there's an improvement in our ability to recognize it," said Soper, who has practiced in Del Norte County for 18 years. "Nobody was treating children psychiatrically when I first came up."
Such tests include checking speaking skills, reflexes, reactions to sounds, the ability to play with other children and adapt to changes in routine. Repeated rocking or twirling, hand flapping, obsessions with certain objects and extreme sensitivity or insensitivity to sound and touch can also provide clues.
Identifying the disorder early remains a challenge for regions without staff trained to do so.
"There's a serious shortage of child psychiatrists around the country," Soper said.
Del Norte County cases
Del Norte County offers the speech therapy, family counseling and other services that those with the disorder need, Soper said.
"The basics are there," Soper said. "These kids are getting high priority."
The Redwood Coast Regional Center contacts the Del Norte Unified School District to work with children with disorders in a move to build language skills as young children develop. The school district has 13 students with autism, ranging from mild to severe case.
"We get started right away because there's a window of opportunity," said district superintendent Jan Moorehouse. "The sooner, the better. The younger, the better."
The school district has lately seen more students showing signs of pervasive developmental disorder, tendencies toward social or communication problems that fall short of a full autistic disorder diagnosis.
"We're seeing the same kind of social interactions," said school district psychologist Rande Rothman.
About two years ago, the district started a special class in Mary Peacock Elementary School for students between the ages of four and seven to reach some of those children and prepare them to integrate to regular classes, said Don Olson, the district's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. The school could start a second class, if more students showing signs arrive.
About a month ago, Remi Vista Inc., a nonprofit social service agency in Crescent City, started an infant development program to observe and monitor babies up to age three who may show signs of autism. The effort serves as a back-up in case requests for such early identification measures overwhelm the school district's resources, said Doug Tippman, Remi Vista Inc.'s regional director.
"The earlier they can intervene, the better chance that child has to have language skills," Tippman said.
Buchanan has ensured that her son remains involved in school, sports, camping and other activities since he started pre-school.
"It's not something that has been easy to achieve," she said, noting the use of research, advocacy and attorneys to ensure equal treatment for her son. "They need accomodation, but they don't need to be left out."